A couple of times in the past he’d reached this absolute zero of the truth, and without fear or bitterness he realized now that somewhere inside it there was a move he could make to change his life, to become another person, but he’d never be able to guess what it was.
—Denis Johnson, Angels
Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!
—William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
Despite the fact that his books take place in locations as disparate as Arizona, Nicaragua, Iowa, and in his newest book, Vietnam, Denis Johnson possesses one of the most distinctive literary styles of his time. Whether in the first or third person, narrated by women or men, Johnson’s writing takes the form of unblinking psychological acuity. We meet his characters as they stand perched on the edge of disaster and we follow them down slowly, agonizingly, while Johnson maintains a nonjudgmental tone and offers, ultimately, the possibility of redemption at book’s end. After a loping marathon of aborted rehabilitation attempts, failed relationships, and relapses, the heroin-addict narrator of Jesus’ Son ends his final story at the cusp of true recovery, acknowledging gracefully, “All these weirdos, and me getting better every day in the midst of them. I had never known, never imagined for a minute, that there might be a place for people like us.”
These final redemptive gestures, particularly the way they mingle with the daily misery of Johnson’s characters, are the constant among his varied output. Beneath the superficial differences in his novels’ concerns and settings, the key to Johnson’s fiction is the persistence of what William James called “religious genius”—moments of emotional and intellectual clarity that form the core of religious belief. (James also made much of “mystical,” i.e. drug-induced, religious experience, another form of heightened awareness that Johnson depicts with unparalleled vision.)
Angels followed the brothers Bill and James for a few months in the early 1980s, when they plot a bank robbery in their native Arizona and fail tragically. The “absolute zero of truth” quote above regards Bill, but it’s typical of the entire novel’s narrative thrust, wherein the disaffected underclass of America is represented as victims of a larger fate. Tree of Smoke’s plot surrounds that of Angels, following the Houston brothers as they serve in Vietnam during the 1960s, then ending with an extended coda in 1983.
This new book, Johnson’s longest, is simultaneously uncharacteristic of his style and the most complete articulation of his major themes. The detailed sketches of disaffected souls are fewer and far between, and his compact, sharply sculpted sentences (a remnant of his early career as a poet) have given way to a more open-ended, paragraph-based style befitting the scope of his novel. But in his shadowy story of unseen espionage and wartime loyalties, Johnson furthers his existing concerns like identity, fate and freewill, and individual redemption. Most importantly, Tree of Smoke is a novel about faithfulness, specifically how people can maintain allegiance to a group while disdaining the members that comprise it. Like The Stars at Noon, which concerned espionage in 1984 Nicaragua, Tree of Smoke’s setting and politics are only a means through which Johnson addresses his usual thematic preoccupations.
The Houston brothers’ story comprises nearly half of the novel, the rest being the concomitant experience of William “Skip” Sands, a CIA operative who grows progressively more disillusioned with the American government as his time in the Philippines and Vietnam goes on. Skip’s story, filled with shifting alliances and covert aliases, in a way serves as a counterpoint to the Houston saga. Together, the stories of a CIA higher-up and those of two Podunk infantrymen from Arizona form a complete picture of the Vietnam debacle. To borrow the soldiers’ vernacular, everyone, high and low, got fucked during this war.
The connection between the two plotlines is Col. Joseph Sands, Skip’s uncle and the Houstons’ commander. The colonel is the type of arch-military man that “view[s] violence as inevitably human and warriors as peculiarly blessed.” He talks fast and inspires great confidence in his men, particularly the fatherless Skip, and the three revolve around him as the main character: Tree of Smoke’s suspense derives from the characters’ attempts to understand the colonel—both his military role and his individual nature.
Obviously modeled after Robert Duvall’s Lt. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, the colonel gives Johnson an opportunity to address the impossibility of “understanding” Vietnam as something outside its pop-cultural identity. Other characters echo the whooping, sleeveless warriors of Full Metal Jacket or Platoon, while the juxtaposition of stateside and far-Eastern experiences reminds one of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. With these images, Johnson insinuates that the Vietnam War is as hard to pin down as the CIA spies that fought in it.
Skip and James Houston share a room only once, in a scene that splits the novel in half physically and thematically. The scene itself is devastating, occurring right after the initial strike of the Tet Offensive shocks James’s platoon and nearly kills its sergeant. Some of the soldiers capture a Vietcong and soon an audience gathers around while they engage in unspeakable torture. When the cruelty overwhelms, however, the colonel steps in:
The colonel hopped down off the connex crate and walked over to the scene unsnapping the flap on his holster and motioned Cowboy [James] and Kooty out of the way and shot the dangling prisoner in the temple.
Sergeant Storm said, “Goddman fucking right.”
Cowboy put his face directly in the colonel’s. “You didn’t hear the sarge crying and bawling till he lost his voice,” he told him. “One or two things like that, and this shit ain’t funny no more.”
The question, of course, is why James Houston thought that war should be “funny” in the first place. Here we sympathize with the colonel, a man for whom the army (or at least soldiering) is a way of life, a grand purpose, and who in the chain of command is surrounded by backstabbing superiors and unthinking, hotheaded subordinates. The ripples from this scene inform everything after it; soon the colonel is being investigated for war crimes even though his murder was clearly a mercy killing. It becomes an excuse for the CIA to silence a man who values warfare and duty over bureaucracy. Earlier, he lectured his men on a famous football game between Notre Dame and Michigan State. Notre Dame opted to take the tie rather than beat their rival, as the tie didn’t diminish their playoff standing. Still, the colonel is outraged:
Now listen to me. I don’t want you to get confused why I’m telling you this. I’m telling you this because it’s exactly what we ourselves, right here, are always up against, invariably. Invariably we are up against a stretch of ground and an enemy. And to give up the stretch of ground in pursuit of some theory about the future is not the way we do things here.
In addition to establishing the character of Colonel Sands, this passage shows Johnson’s gift for spoken language. The Colonel’s speech is commanding and expressive, yet he drops the “about” between “confused” and “why” in the second sentence. He repeats his only ten-cent word, “invariably,” and though he’s clearly an intelligent man, “some theory about the future” establishes him as believably populist, not overly intellectual. It is exactly the way this particular man would deliver this particular speech.
Johnson has always adjusted his prose to fit his subject. In Jesus’ Son, he borrowed the loping, dreamlike aimlessness of a drug addict’s consciousness and wrote stories without proper endings filled with characters that die and then reappear as if divorced from linear time. For Tree of Smoke’s CIA sections, Johnson frequently eschews articles, giving his prose the immediacy of a point-by-point military directive: “And here was a letter from Kathy Jones. He’s received several in the past year, each one crazier than the last, had saved them all, had ceased answering.” Likewise, the tropical setting gives Johnson an opportunity to indulge his more poetic tendencies. Here’s his description of a hike during a Philippine sunrise:
One edge of the world turned red and the sun came rolling over on them, burning away the vapors below and seeming to fashion from the mist itself a grander and more complicated vista of hills and ravines and winking creeks and vegetation tinted not just the innumerable values of green, but also silver, black, purple.
The character that fashions this bustling natural portrait is Father Carignan, a priest who suffers at the hands of the shadowy CIA forces that enter his village. Carignan is one of many ways in which Christianity imbues Tree of Smoke; another character, and the only major female one, is the Kathy Jones mentioned above. Kathy is a Canadian missionary who has lost her husband somewhere in the jungle. Rumors abound that he was killed, that he disappeared, and in his absence she commences an emotional but brief affair with Skip. Kathy is emotionally wounded like all Johnson’s characters, but her wounds seem deeper because of her religion. Bill and James Houston come across as simpleminded sufferers guided forcibly by fate, Skip is betrayed by his country, but Kathy’s sadness comes despite her faith in God. (Perhaps even because of it, since she wouldn’t have come to the jungle that stole her husband had she not been compelled to missionary work.) In Tree of Smoke, particularly the concluding 1983 section, Johnson again creates characters that find comfort in religion even as it doesn’t tangibly benefit their lives. Instead, like William James, he places emphasis on the individual religious genius.
Tellingly, there is almost no warfare at all in Johnson’s 600-page Vietnam novel. Soldiers talk about guns but rarely fire them, just as The Stars at Noon’s journalist narrator never actually writes anything. Instead, Johnson’s primary mode of addressing the war’s effects is to show his characters’ emotional responses. Many times, this means they experience moments of “genius” like those in Angels:
He’d seen the photo of William Benét in the New Straits Times and had realized along the way a sort of psychic and spiritual gravitation had guided his every footstep and that he had bested the Assassin, survived the Smugglers, transcended the Prison . . . and that the colonel was now possible.
It’s tough to swallow a government spy suddenly attuning himself to a “psychic and spiritual gravitation,” and that kind of awkward thematic merging prevents Tree of Smoke from totally cohering. It is overly long and occasionally ponderous, and it’s certainly less filled with action than we would expect from a wartime espionage narrative. But for all its flaws, the novel does represent a high point in Johnson’s engagement with religious themes.
The moments of personal enlightenment experienced by Johnson’s characters are certainly real—he uses no secular irony, bitterness, or judgment against these men and women. But he also never espouses a belief in any particular faith. The war slaughters Vietnamese Buddhists, Catholic missionaries, and atheists with equal disregard. He shares with William James a tendency to value the individual over the institution. Missionary Kathy and atheist Skip don’t share any ceremonial religious interests, but while imprisoned, Skip still writes, “I feel like I could take note of every little thought and describe every molecule of this cell and every moment of my life,” just as Kathy, pages later, feels that “The scene before her flattened. . . . This moment, this very experience of it, seemed only the thinnest gauze.” And what grander scale than war to assess the relationship of individual experience to communal obligation?
The colonel is a man for whom war means something personal. He is superficially obligated to represent the United States Army, but his greatest obligation, as shown in his treatment of the Notre Dame game, is to the bigger ideals of what a warrior should be. In the central torture scene, his murder is essentially a mercy killing borne out of a loyalty to humanity; had he merely sat still and retained his loyalty to the U.S. Army by letting the torture go on, he would never have been later thought guilty of war crimes. Thus Johnson illustrates the banality of loyalty to a group.
For all the intertextuality in Johnson’s books (and Tree of Smoke marks his greatest assimilation of outside sources yet, from the Bible to song lyrics to CIA manuals), William James doesn’t appear in any of the novels I’ve mentioned. It just so happens that James’s conception of religion as an intensely personal experience—as well as his insistence that its “value” only be considered through pragmatic interpretation—is the direct ancestor of an idea that Johnson has built a career on. In interviews, he’s revealed that he began writing Tree of Smoke in the early 1980s, debunking any notion that he wanted to capitalize on the Vietnam-Iraq parallels that have been trotted out in our current war. The novel feels accordingly overcooked at times, but Johnson clearly understood that the military during an unjust war was the greatest possible metaphor on which he could drape his career concerns. The result is literally the work of a lifetime, even if it’s not the best work he’s done in that span.
John Lingan is a writer living in Baltimore, MD.
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