Denis Johnson - review (4 stars)

Tree of Smoke (Picador)

Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke (Picador)

It’s a popular assertion that education is less a means to an end and more an end in itself, and it might be helpful to consider such sentiments in the reading of Denis Johnson’s latest, resolutely bleak and weighty novel. Johnson is in no immediate hurry as he examines the human consequence of political misadventure in Southeast Asia from 1963–70 giving us a comprehensive representation of the Vietnam War’s impact on the individual in visceral minutiae, (Andy McNabb this is not), with little (though sufficient) time spent on the combat itself.

Johnson marries theories of war and espionage, religion and politics with native folklore and layman philosophy to form an exhaustive human epic that soaks up the madness of that era without drawing explicit conclusions. It’s only in attempts to account for such broad loose ends that Johnson’s otherwise exemplary plotting and assured prose suffer a loss of pace and focus in the final furlong. (Mark Edmundson)


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