Message from a Dead Man: A Review of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke

October 15, 2007 | 2 books mentioned 2 4 min read

The intrusion of the university into the life of the writer “is unquestionably the chief sociological fact of modern American literature,” Keith Gessen wrote in last year’s N+1 symposium on American literature. Though Gessen’s rhetoric may have been strategically hyperbolic, the facts bore him out. For better or for worse, the M.F.A. workshop has changed our conception of literary art from that of a calling to that of a profession – one with its own “skill sets,” human resources apparatus, and even (it seems at times) its own dress code.

This isn’t entirely a bad thing (as both Gessen and I are in a position to know). Among other things, a graduate creative writing program provides a brief oasis of financial and social security in the hard country that is the writing life. (O, to return to the days when one could proclaim to an interlocutor, “I’m in grad school,” rather than mumbling, “I’m a writer…”) But the workshop is, as its best pedagogical theorists know, hostile to the new. At its worst, it is a machine for converting freshness into formula.

Which helps to explain the durability, among students of writing, of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. For a decade and a half, this slim collection has passed from hand to hand among M.F.A. students like samizdat. Johnson’s stories are not reducible to formal principles. His plots are odd and ungainly. His sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language. My favorite Johnson story, for example, begins, “Sometimes I went during my lunch break into a big nursery across the street, a glass building full of plants and wet earth and feeling of cool dead sex.”

coverReading Johnson’s latest, longest, and, in my limited purview, finest novel, Tree of Smoke, I kept thinking of Jesus’ Son’s reinvention of the short story. Now, in 2007, in wartime, we find Johnson straining against the teachable conventions of the novel, in a way that does honor to the form. Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil, I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.

This is a war novel in which the war never quite arrives. Instead, the tangled plot wraps itself around a handful of intelligence operatives, relief workers, and low-level grunts who hover around the peripheries of our decade-long quagmire in Vietnam. As some commentators have noted, the novel pays homage to the conventions of Vietnam literature and film, but it’s the departure from the tropes of innocence and experience that matters. Here, as in Johnson’s stories, the characters seem to have lost their innocence at birth. Their souls are stained with something like original sin.

The central figure is William “Skip” Sands, who in 1965, when the novel opens, has joined the family business – the CIA. His uncle is a vivid, Ahabian character known as “The Colonel.” In the course of the novel, The Colonel will become obsessed with an elaborate psy-ops plot to feed phony intelligence to the North Vietnamese. Meanwhile, the Agency will become obsessed with bringing down The Colonel. Amid the proliferating intrigues, then, the main plot will boil down to classical terms: a conflict in Skip’s loyalties, the family vs. the state.

Along the way, we meet the tormented Kathy, who provides aid to children injured in the war; the Houston brothers, enlisted men whose experiences in Vietnam may be said to be representative; and two Vietnamese ensnared in the Colonel’s conspiracy. In lesser hands, any of these characters might have decayed into types, but Johnson invests each with a deep interiority, letting his or her mind wander at cross-purposes to the narrative. Here, for example, is Nguyen Hao, the reluctant co-conspirator, waking in the morning:

“Sloth kept him in bed awhile. Restlessness drove him downstairs to the tiny court behind his kitchen, where the sun made more mist. Under its warmth everything gave off ghosts. They woke from the bricks, rose with a deep reluctance, disappeared. Hao spread his white handkerchief on the stone bench, seated himself carefully, and tried to find some quiet in his mind.”

Johnson who lately has been writing plays, tends to let his dialogue run on for pages, stilted, staccato bits meant to indict the poverty of speech, to leaven the mood, and to build tension. But his real genius is for description. In a single, unassuming detail – that white handkerchief – the character of Nguyen Hao comes alive, not an Orientalist’s prop, but a flesh-and-blood character, who might be our neighbor. Johnson works similar wonders with Skip Sands’ moustache.

At 600 pages, the novel is clearly up to something bigger than a mere collection of characters. With its phony intelligence and its wartime hell built on the benevolent intentions of individuals like Skip, Tree of Smoke is an attempt to write about the present through the prism of the past. But Johnson’s refusal to surrender completely to thematic and political imperatives – his remarkable ability to let his material breathe – rescues the novel from didacticism.

At times, I was reminded of a parable by Kafka, another writer who flirts with, but never gives in to, allegory. In it, a dying emperor “has sent a message to you, the humble subject.” His messenger sets out on his journey, but beyond the emporer’s bed is a chamber, and beyond the chamber door is another chamber, and beyond that an outer palace, and then more chambers and palaces “and so on for thousands of years… Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man.”

War, in Tree of Smoke, is like that message. It exists, murderously, but just over the horizons. Explosions echo in the distance, flicker in the sky, waft the odor of charred flesh toward us, but we are trapped just outside it, at human scale, wrestling with the angels of our nature. In this way, the novel speaks eloquently to our condition here in the U.S, circa 2007. It’s the kind of eloquence they don’t teach you in school. I guess you have to earn it.

[an excerpt from Tree of Smoke]

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. I can vouch for these comments, having finished it last week. I am a slavering admirer of Jesus' Son, and this is the only other prose work of his that consistently hits that mark. I reacted bodily to the book, even feeling its presence sitting nearby when I wasn't reading it. Garth's comments are quite perceptive, as they were on Delillo recently.

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