I read Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke over the long Veteran’s Day holiday weekend, appropriately enough. I was struck by the overall sense of hopelessness that runs through the novel.
As layers of deceit are unwrapped around William “Skip” Sands it becomes clear that “Tree of Smoke” is a CIA web of kidnapping, assassination and double agents in 1963 Vietnam. He entered the agency because of a childhood fascination with his operative uncle, the colonel, and is now mired in a world of horrific evil fraught with the mob mentality inhumanity of war described perfectly in scenes with the lowly Houston brothers as U.S. Soldiers.
He has an affair with Kathy, a Canadian woman who is in Vietnam trying to save as many orphans from the tragedy as she can. Her missionary husband was murdered during their time in the Philippines. She continues to be driven in the work. The affair serves as a small respite from all the surrounding violence and atrocities.
Johnson’s novel travels through 20 years and allows for views of where the characters end up, where the CIA and the U.S. Military end up, where Vietnam ends up and where America ends up with regard to Vietnam. There is no light at the end of any of these tunnels. “This is a fallen world.”