Pastoral Genocide

Tree of Smoke.
July 17, 2008, 7:11 pm
Filed under: Literature | Tags: , ,

In the retrospective mechanism of the American cultural disapora, the Vietnam War is an approximation of time and place that is sheeted in dense cloud cover. The dark of the jungle, the oppressive heat and humidity, the lingering taste of bloodloss, and the disillusion of youth: these are the some of the things that we, in our self-styled modernity, recall when reminiscing about the Vietnam War. It matters little –if at all – that we are recalling a time and place in which we have little or no right to empirically digest and even less right to accurately describe.

Today, the Vietnam War is seen as a swelling mile-marker which came to define a country that was politically and otherwise wayward. It was an awkward age in which the auspices of culture, at long last, were met with self-awareness. The cruelty of the divided American South, the bloated feeling of post-WWII superiority, the fear of the Russians and their apocalyptic rain of fire dance together in a stew of recognizance that seems to be a hallucination of the grandest sort, projected, somehow, as a war which encompassed not only Southwest Asia but also our own social-reflexivity. The Vietnam War was more than just a war, it was an era of disillusionment and literature, music and thought, hope and heartbreak. The sense that America was vulnerable and – gasp – less than worthwhile became wrought and burned into the streets of our cities. The new guard and the old guard stood toe-to-toe on each corner, lazily and conveniently forgetting the crew-cut young men that slowly, then rapidly, became ghosts in a faraway jungle.

Denis Johnson’s newest novel, Tree of Smoke, does not forget those young men. In the same sense, he doesn’t actually remember them, either. They exist for Johnson in the way that they exist for the anti-Iraq War movement (and their cries of quagmires and lessons learned) and the starched corruption of the Swiftboat Veterans’ advertising campaign. They are a means and a way to weave a tapestry of totality, a portraiture of a predicted endgame. Because, of course, being a marine in Khe Sanh was hazardous to your health if and only if you were actually a marine in Khe Sanh. So, what’s the point? Well, the first and perhaps most pragmatic point is that Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is a tremendous work of literature that depicts the Vietnam War as the endless and borderless monster that it was. It is about jungles and guns and dying, but it is also about the 1966 Michigan State-Notre Dame football game, Orson’s 1984, and the municipal jail cells of Phoenix, Arizona.

Roughly based around the misadventures of Skip Sands, a middling CIA-agent under the nepotistic care of his uncle, the Colonel, and the Houston brothers, Bill and James, the story encompasses 20 years and two continents. Sands, primarily involved in psychological operations against the Vietcong, yearns for glory. The Houston brothers, young and poor, yearn for a directional influence to enter their lives. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, failure for all is guaranteed. It is a fatalist sort of fantasy, a surreal dreamscape where sweeping adventure bravely-slash-stupidly belies the forgone promise of cavernous inconsequence. Rationality, at least in real time, is a distinct and forlorn idea, a theory that is sought after but never substantiated.

As each character plods through the exposition, Johnson’s use of language enables a powerful reverie to emerge. The places he describes are horrible or beautiful and, often, both. There’s a wanderlust present, a scope that consumes the beaches of Waikiki, the business district of Manila, and star-speckled desert sky of Southern Arizona. The consequence is a contorted but fitting one: Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, like the war it fleetingly tries to rationalize, is impatient and complicated. The story and it’s characters pass like a fever, a sweltering tour de force that blazes momentarily before fading, quietly and mercifully, into the thereafter.

In the here and now, the Vietnam War is a benchmark for which current failures are measured against. It’s a political tool, a compensatory measurement stick for both penis sizes and patriotism. For many, it was and remains an ill-conceived rite of passage, a masturbatory and recollective fantasy in which they faced a great and yawning evil. Where, somehow, listening to Bob Dylan records was tantamount to courage . But for some, the Vietnam War truly was a harrowing moment of introspection and implosion. A confusing and gigantic beast, the War was carried on the backs of men not unlike the Houston brothers and Skip Sands. Unaware of a greater consciousness, they did as they were told, for awhile. And when things no longer made sense, they did something other than what they were told. But always, they did something. Johnson understands this in a pointed and touching way. And, therein, the pain and the poetry of Tree of Smoke emerges.


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