Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

Reviewed by Rick Skwiot

Blowing Smoke

After closely reading the first 250 pages of Denis Johnson’s 624-page Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) and skimming the rest, I returned it to the library in three pieces. The recently published $27 hardback was literally falling apart, thanks to a cheaply glued—not stitched—spine. The librarian said he devoted part of each day to repairing such shoddy new publications. Alas, the book’s substance didn’t hold together any better.

I’d seen Tree of Smoke praised to high heaven in a New York Times review and touted in dust-jacket blurbs by folks like Philip Roth, who should know better. Its wooden characters creaked, its plot failed to materialize after 75,000 words, and its imprecise and arrhythmic language tripped me up time and again, forcing me back to reread sentences in an attempt to figure out what the hell they meant. Boredom soon set in. And this is a novel nominated for the National Book Award, which raised my expectations. I should have known better, having suffered through leaden nominees of previous years.

But I have high expectations for any serious novel I pick up and deign to devote 10 or 20 hours of my life to. The author needs to engage me quickly like Tolstoy; have Mark Twain’s feel for the language, go psychologically deep like D.H. Lawrence, amass the power of Theodore Dreiser, or imbue the work with the spiritual magic of Henry Miller. If that doesn’t happen, why read on? Instead, I’ll return to Turgenev, Chekov, Simenon and Conrad. I don’t believe I’ve set the readership bar too high and can’t believe no such comparable American novelists are out there—every generation has it transcendent artists. But judging by Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson is not one of them.

Just after I’d checked it out of the library, I told a fellow writer of my early reservations about the novel and Johnson, whom I claimed never to have read. He corrected me: Some years earlier he’d loaned me a previous Johnson novel that I returned saying, “If you or I had written this it would have never been published.” The same criticism—of the novel as well as the publishing industry—applies to Tree of Smoke.

It seems that nowadays too often author “branding” drives literary praise: Since Denis Johnson has been anointed as “one of our greatest living novelists,” then his ambitious new novel dealing with a pivotal piece of our history must be great. (However, this is not a new phenomenon: Witness the ongoing adulation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a mess of a novel with clunky, amateurish exposition and pretentious dialogue—though it is a great title. Or Katherine Anne Porter’s poorly written and overheated Ship of Fools. Both books made good movies but neither were anywhere near the authors’ best work.)

Thanks to the corporatization and marketization of publishing—its corruption—we may never read our best writers and our best literature, which thus will also be lost to future generations. And once we stop reading good literature, we will lose our critical judgment and the ability to distinguish good writing—or good thinking—from bad.

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