By Denis JohnsonFarrar, Straus and Giroux
When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.
Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else. According to The New York Times, which in 2006 sent a questionnaire to writers, editors, and critics, a collection of Johnson’s short stories titled Jesus’ Son is regarded by some as the best American book of the past 25 years. He is often called “a writer’s writer,” with the customary implication that this is far better than being a reader’s writer. Denis Johnson is, in short, the sort of novelist whose work one expects to be reviewed on the cover of every prominent newspaper’s book section, as Tree of Smoke was in September. Equally predictable was the reviewers’ implicit injunction that we should ask not what the book can do for us, but what it can do for Johnson’s place in American letters. This much is standard Important Writer treatment, and for all I know, Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times), Jim Lewis (The New York Times Book Review), and other reviewers consider Johnson worthy of it no matter what he puts out. What I find difficult to believe is that they admire Tree of Smoke. For one thing, their own prose is better than anything in it. For another, they try to lower our expectations for the book even as they cry it up as the main event of the fall publishing season. Lewis, for example, gives a marveling nod at the part in which “two drunken soldiers, one of them an amputee, have a long, inane conversation, during which the disabled one announces, ‘My invisible foot hurts.’”
An amputee with a phantom limb, fancy that. Lewis’s aside that Tree of Smoke “doesn’t feel like a Denis Johnson novel” lends weight to the assumption that a writer cannot become famous by writing like this, at least not yet. But with no way to prove insincerity on the reviewers’ part, I have to pretend to believe that they really do consider Tree of Smoke to be “something like a masterpiece” (Lewis) and “bound to become one of the classic works of literature” (Kakutani) about the Vietnam War. (The novel, a New York Times best seller, has been nominated for a National Book Award.)
Underlying the hype is the silly notion that if a work introduces plenty of characters and traipses after them for enough years and pages, it is ipso facto ambitious. The true mark of an ambitious work is its style and depth. We would recognize Anna Karenina as such a novel even if only its first few pages had survived, because they depict characters with extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives. In contrast, Tree of Smoke starts off with one Seaman Bill Houston shooting a tiny monkey he sees in the jungle. (The symbolism of this happening hours after JFK’s assassination is crude in more ways than one.) The animal, evidently a gun buff, spreads its arms “enthusiastically” before dropping to the ground, where its mood changes. “With fascination, then with revulsion, [Bill] realized that the monkey was crying.” Such a realization would take far too short a time for anyone to become fascinated, let alone for fascination to yield to revulsion—and why revulsion anyway? Later, Bill meets up with his younger brother James, a soldier. For some reason, Bill does not know James’s age, and appears surprised to learn that he is not yet 18. James “done lied” to the recruiter. The level of their conversation can be imagined.
We are then introduced to another central character, Skip, with the news that
having been raised in the American heartland he was dedicated to steering clear of personal controversy, to ignoring scowls, honoring evasiveness, fending off voices raised in other rooms.
Ignoring scowls is no way to steer clear of controversy, but never mind that. The derivation of a man’s personality from his place of origin is the stuff of second-rate thrillers. After two months in the Philippines, Skip
liked the people, he hated the climate. It was the start of his fifth year serving the United States as a member of its Central Intelligence Agency. He considered both the Agency and his country to be glorious.
Anyone expecting a psychological novel from characters so lacking in complexity deserves to be disappointed.
There is no point in dwelling on the story line, because even some of the book’s admirers have conceded its sluggishness and overlength—albeit with some humbug about how flaws make a good novel more likable, perfection being such a turnoff, etc. As for the action, it never feels authentic. Soldiers do not laugh in unison or call out frantically for M&Ms during a sudden and intense firefight, nor would a soldier crawling through bush find the attendant lacerations “exhilarating.” Not once does the reader feel fear or tension. Whether it’s because of the compulsive references to the Kennedys or the constant emphasis on the soldier as rock-and-roll hipster, one thinks only of the silver-screen ’Nam and of Life, not life, feeble substitutes for the riches to be had from Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
Not even Robert De Niro’s combination of Special Forces uniform and goatee in The Deer Hunter—which elicited howls of laughter in the theater near Fort Ord, California, where I first saw it—is as preposterous as Tree of Smoke’s Black Man, whom the U.S. Army and the tropical jungle allow to keep his name patch covered with tape. He prefers to be called Black Man, you see. He also likes gruffly telling other soldiers how small his penis is. Black Man is one of many indications that the author is unfamiliar not only with military life but with male company in general.
Another is the dialogue. This is Skip’s uncle, a freewheeling colonel who is meant to seem intelligent and tough but comes off as neither:
“Let’s face it, our whole civilization is a layer of sediment. In the end some mongrel barbarian wakes up in the morning and stands with one foot on a rock and the other on the kicked-over vessel of Kennedy’s eternal flame. And that vessel is cold and dead, and that sonofabitch doesn’t even know he’s standing on it. He’s just taking a piss in the morning. When I get up in the morning and step behind the tent to break wind and void my bladder, whose grave am I pissing on?”
Note the jumble of language levels, the artsy compound adjective thrown in with profanity and genteelisms. At first I assumed that Johnson was poking fun at the colonel for trying to conceal a lack of schooling, just as Hollywood makes us smile at gangsters’ efforts to sound well-bred. (Much of Dickens’s humor consists of precisely this sort of thing.) Alas, almost everyone in Tree of Smoke talks like the colonel, including the narrator: “He didn’t see where she made water. When she wanted to piss … ”