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.


Sherman Alexie:The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
June 10, 2008, 4:20 am
Filed under: Literature | Tags: , ,

Sherman Alexie :: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

Real Talk. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is an ironically American portraiture of life on the reservation, as seen through the eyes of the people it holds hostage. The book is a collage of 27 short stories, all of which are set on or around the Spokane Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington state. In its totality, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a bleak look into a self-contained bubble of alcoholism and bitter predestination, a place where hope exists only within the pervasive framework of hopelessness. Alexi’s voice is both unique and raw, a patchwork of pedestrian realities that conclude in slow burning tragedy.

For all of it’s granular hardship, however, Alexi’s prose becomes paralyzed by the stale rigidity of repetition: familiar voices in familiar places, saying and doing familiar things. Ultimately – and unfortunately so – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven’s efficacy is diminished by Alexi’s puritanic homogenization of time and place. The collection’s cast of characters are different people living the same life, unable to distinguish themselves from their reality. The end result is a hodge podge of talent and potential and a vaguely masturbatory compulsion to emphasize callous suffering over the individual.

It is, as they say, an opportunity missed.

March 25, 2008, 4:23 am
Filed under: Literature, Music | Tags: , , , , ,

E. Hemingway – “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio”


This Will Destroy You – “A Three-Legged Workhorse”



True At First Light
March 4, 2008, 1:45 am
Filed under: Literature | Tags:

“In Africa, a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.”

With such flourish of dreamy hyperbole, Ernest Hemingway dove headlong into his last, great adventure. Dramatically dysfunctional, True At First Light tries unsubstantially to distance itself from the oligarchies of colonialism that Hemingway himself helped create. It’s a portraiture of man who is no longer himself and cannot remember, for the life of him, what and who he used to be. Hemingway’s Africa is plagued by his desire to be profound, the hapless yearning for enlightenment among the unenlightened. The theater is inherently racist as Hemingway perceives himself just short of messiah, a demigod among dogs. It is Hemingway at his worst, bloated and voluminous and unaware that he is neither the priest nor the sacrificial lMB. However, it also here – trapped within the constraining devices of the posthumous – that Hemingway’s legacy burns brightest. Edited and constructed by his son Patrick, Hemingway is a caricature of stoicism. He is the last of the great men, the elders who unapologetically sought adventure as a modus of living. He is piss and vinegar and fire and the unrelenting blue of the sky that sits above the African plains. Most importantly, however, Hemingway has conquered self-doubt, the claustrophobia of accepting anything less than glorious personal triumph. It’s pathetic in an aggrandizing way, an attempt at inflation of the pettiest sort. But for all this folly and foolishness, True At First Light possess an unparalleled beauty that transcends the residual elegance of its presentation. Because, at its core, True At First Light is simply a son painting a picture of a man he hardly knew, a father who was greater in death than in life.