Friday, October 30, 2009

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

My book group was reading National Book Award winners so I decided to pick Tree of Smoke because it has been a long time since I’ve read any truly literary fiction, much less 614 pages of it. I started off listening to the book, and the narrator is great, but the story shifts perspective so effortlessly and the time periods (even within the same year) shifted around a lot and I was losing track of the story line. So, I checked the actual book out and things began to flow and I loved it!

This novel spans from 1963 to 1983 and is about the Vietnam War…or at least the war from Skip Sand’s perspective. The character list is pretty long and the plot not at all straight forward. You have Colonel F.X. Sands and his legendary exploits combined with a slightly shady association with Psy Ops now. No one seems to like him or to really know what he’s doing in Vietnam. Skip looks up to his uncle and wants to help out with Psy Ops but the colonel doesn’t let him do too much except look after three footlockers of notecards full of incomprehensible information. A Canadian missionary/nurse, two brothers suffering all the different consequences of wartime service, a Vietcong operative turning spy for Colonel Sands, and a handful of other characters keep the smoke thick and further obscure what’s going on.

Even after finishing this book, I can’t really tell you what it is about. It was dense and complex and hard to keep up with and I loved every minute of it. I don’t know who on earth I’d recommend it to. It is not a straightforward war novel. It is more a philosophical, somewhat stream-of-consciousness exploration of the tolls of war on the human psyche. The book’s customer reviews on Amazon pretty much sum it up.

5 Star-32
4 Star-13
3 Star-15
2 Star-17
1 Star-31

I don’t remember ever encountering a book where there is such a spread between love-it and hate-it. I loved it and I’d love to hear from someone else who enjoyed it though of course I won’t ignore you if you loathed it either.

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