Tree of Smoke

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2007, 12:00am

Tree of Smoke

by Denis Johnson

Picador, HK$197

Put Vietnam to rest may be the initial reaction to Tree of Smoke. After all it has been 32 years since Saigon fell and the war has inspired more than its fair share of books and movies. But there is a reason Denis Johnson's work won this year's National Book Award for best American fiction.

His novel is a timeless depiction of war and its psychological impact on those involved, and his writing deserves plaudits for pointedness.

Not surprisingly for such a long book, there are characters aplenty and no shortage of threads. Woven through the weft are Skip Sands, a junior spy who leaves everything he knows to combat communism, and his uncle, the Colonel, a Kurtz-type character and an old-school CIA veteran. Intertwined are two directionless brothers from Arizona, James and Bill Houston, the second of whom Johnson writes into a brilliantly moving scene in which he shoots a monkey for no real reason, cradles the animal while it weeps to death, then cries like a child because no one is watching. Tree of Smoke is unlikely to be be the last work on Vietnam. But if it were it would make a fine bookend to the war.