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 »
Tree of Smokeby DENIS JOHNSON
Ovenmanby JEFF PARKER
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 cutesinessa main character named When, his girlfriend Marigold, and a dog called Leftcan 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 Phoenixas much of a wilderness outpost as the jungle landing zonesthe 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.
|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.|