The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »

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Powell's Books


March 7, 2008

Tree of Smoke




There’s no comparison between Jeff Parker’s Ovenman and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Parker’s slacker comedy about a ne’er-do-well of the restaurant world is fun enough, though the cutesiness—a main character named When, his girlfriend Marigold, and a dog called Left—can be a bit much. Parker does a nice job of showing that those poor gimps sweating it out in the back of your local pizza joint have actual lives and painful failures. Then again, did anyone think otherwise?

Tree of Smoke, on the other hand, is a masterpiece. Following Armageddon, when a few half-mad survivors try to understand how it all went wrong, they’ll place Tree of Smoke on the same shelf as Heart of Darkness, Blood Meridian, and War and Peace. An epic of human folly within the deranged circumstances of the Vietnam War, the story focuses on CIA operative Colonel Francis Sands and his nephew-slash-protégé Skip Sands. Frustrated by America’s muddled tactics, the Colonel becomes a kind of well-meaning Kurtz and begins an unauthorized program of psychological warfare. This isn’t merely a spy thriller, however, and Johnson’s Vietnam is populated with surreal misanthropes, Vietnamese families desperate to escape the maelstrom, bereaved missionaries, scientists studying endangered monkeys, and the tragedy of the Houston brothers, James and Bill. Coming from a dead-end life in Phoenix—as much of a wilderness outpost as the jungle landing zones—the souls of both are devoured by the horrors they witness, or perpetrate. Johnson details this huge cast with depth and exquisite sympathy, and by the end readers will be left stunned and wondering whether their own lives drift on the tree of smoke. Denying the power and authenticity of this novel is like when a despairing widow talks to a doctor amidst the burning ruins of a monkey clinic:

“We’re in a horrible place.”

“It’s a fallen world.”

“I can’t contradict you. That would be stupid.”

• Today’s WINNER •

Tree of Smoke

• About the Judge •

TMN Contributing Writer Tobias Seamon is the author of the novel The Magician’s Study (Turtle Point Press) and a chapbook of poetry Loosestrife Along the River Styx (Foothills Publishing). He recently wrote and directed the short film Amerikan Partizan, which premiered at the 2007 Edwood Film Festival. He lives with his wife in Albany, N.Y. Connections to this year’s competitors: None known.

• From the Booth •

I stopped reading The Atlantic around the time I started procreating and my adult reading time was drastically reduced. Kevin John I think just about every M.F.A. grad in America has a copy of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. I have three. I used to have 11.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Tree of Smoke v. Ovenman
judged by Tobias Seamon

The Savage Detectives v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Elizabeth Kiem

Then We Came to the End v. Petropolis
judged by Anthony Doerr

You Don’t Love Me Yet v. New England White
judged by Jessica Francis Kane

Run v. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea
judged by Kate Schlegel

What the Dead Know v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Elizabeth McCracken

On Chesil Beach v. Remainder
judged by Ze Frank

The Shadow Catcher v. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
judged by Helen DeWitt

• Round Two •

Tree of Smoke v. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
judged by Mark Sarvas

Then We Came to the End v. You Don’t Love Me Yet
judged by Maud Newton

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
judged by Ted Genoways

Remainder v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Mark Liberman


Tree of Smoke v. Then We Came to the End
judged by Gary Shteyngart

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Shadow Catcher
judged by Nick Hornby


Then We Came to the End v. Remainder
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao v. The Savage Detectives
judged by Andrew Womack


Remainder v. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
All Judges + Jennifer Szalai