Friday, April 24, 2009


Denis Johnson wrote the best book I read last year, Tree of Smoke. Evidently, I wasn't the only one who thought so since it snagged him the National Book Award. He's coming out with a noirish pulp thriller that was serialized in Playboy, Nobody Move. (I just read an advance proof, and it was brisk hardboiled fun). Johnson first caught the public eye with a brilliant collection of stories, Jesus' Son, back in 1992. Dialog, structure, heart--this guy has the chops. He also knows more Dylan lyrics than anyone I've ever played guitars with...but that's just shameless name-dropping, so I'll shut up.

Tree of Smoke, his last book, the big book, has an historical sweep of America in the 1960s, concentrating specifically on US foreign policy in the hearts and minds of a handful of soldiers, drifters, outlanders, true believers. Oh oh, you say, another Vietnam novel? Why do we need another Vietnam book after Robert Stone and Tim O'Brien, after the reportage of Michael Herr? To paraphrase Celine, don't judge it too quickly. The novel rings like a tuning fork with current foreign affairs. It's about then, sure, but it's about now.

It's a big story--an interweaving of several stories, actually--with very real characters and difficult moral questions. After exhibiting his knack for shorter work, this comes as a surprise since most writers are fortunate to master one form, and here Johnson expands his universe to convincingly cover a huge cast of disparate characters across several continents. Don't get me wrong. This is not some simple macho war story or any of that gung ho horseshit, but a masterful display of what we expect from literary fiction at its best. Johnson delivers. Don't believe me. Read the review in the New York Times, here.

Or better yet, read the book.

here's an excerpt:

He kept his vision on the spot where he'd seen it among the branches of a rubber tree, putting his hand out for the rifle without altering the direction of his gaze. It moved again. Now he saw that it was some sort of monkey, not much bigger than a Chihuahua dog. Not precisely a wild boar, but it presented itself as something to be looked at, clinging by its left hand and both feet to the tree's trunk and digging at the thin rind with an air of tiny, exasperated haste. Seaman Houston took the monkey's meager back under the rifle's sight. He raised the barrel a few degrees and took the monkey's head into the sight. Without really thinking about anything at all, he squeezed the trigger.

The monkey flattened itself out against the tree, spreading its arms and legs enthusiastically, and then, reaching around with both hands as if trying to scratch its back, it tumbled down to the ground. Seaman Houston was terrified to witness its convulsions there. It hoisted itself, pushing off the ground with one arm, and sat back against the tree trunk with its legs spread out before it, like somebody resting from a difficult job of labor.

Seaman Houston took himself a few steps nearer, and, from the distance of only a few yards, he saw that the monkey's fur was very shiny and held a henna tint in the shadows and a blond tint in the light, as the leaves moved above it. It looked from side to side, its breath coming in great rapid gulps, its belly expanding tremendously with every breath like a balloon. The shot had been low, exiting from the abdomen.

Seaman Houston felt his own stomach tear itself in two. "Jesus Christ!" he shouted at the monkey, as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition. He thought his head would explode, if the forenoon kept burning into the jungle all around him and the gulls kept screaming and the monkey kept regarding its surroundings carefully, moving its head and black eyes from side to side like someone following the progress of some kind of conversation, some kind of debate, some kind of struggle that the jungle—the morning—the moment—was having with itself. Seaman Houston walked over to the monkey and laid the rifle down beside it and lifted the animal up in his two hands, holding its buttocks in one and cradling its head with the other. With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing. "Hey," Houston said, but the monkey didn't seem to hear.

As he held the animal in his hands, its heart stopped beating. He gave it a shake, but he knew it was useless. He felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was eighteen years old.

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