Monday, December 22, 2008

Tree of Smoke

by Denis Johnson

This is a fantastic novel about the Vietnam War, and the way it ground down the people that were involved in it, as soldiers, CIA agents, VC, and even as representatives of humanitarian NGOs.

Really, this book is about the Colonel - a larger-than life WWII veteran who had escaped imprisonment by the Japanese, and had rose to great heights within the Psy Ops division of the CIA. The Colonel has a plan to win the war, and he brings together an unlikely group of people to help him achieve that end.

What makes the book so interesting is that the Colonel is really only ever seen peripherally, mostly through the eyes of his nephew Skip, who is stuck in various rotting outposts of colonialism, organizing a meaningless pile of index cards, and awaiting the moment when he can be called into action.

The strength of this novel is the beauty of its description, and the kaleidoscopic approach Johnson takes to telling his story. Major events happen off the page, or in the scope of a few sentences, while the rest of the novel takes a meditative look at the effects and implications of this type of war.

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