Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Apocalypse Now, & Again: Johnson's Tree of Smoke and the Vietnam War Narrative Revisited

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

Apocalypse Now, & Again: Johnson's Tree of Smoke and the Vietnam War Narrative Revisited

Article excerpt

In the epilogue to Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, which won the 2007 National Book Award for fiction, William "Skip" Sands, former CIA Psy Ops agent engaged against the Vietcong, but by 1983 awaiting execution in a Malaysian prison on a gun-running conviction, writes a letter to his lover from his days in country, Kathy Jones, who presently works for a refugee relief agency in Minnesota, saying, "If I had to do it again, I wouldn't run" (610). These are Skip's last words in the novel, and while he's likely referring to his own increasingly-chaotic and morally-conflicted experiences while in Southeast Asia--first in the Philippines, and then in Vietnam during the late '60s--that impetus to "do it again," or to repeat/revisit the past, here in ternis not just of the recent historical past of the Vietnam War, but that whole (and one would think already quite complete) sub-genre of narratives (novels, films, non-fiction accounts, etc.) which that event spawned (from Stone's Dog Soldiers to O'Brien's The Things They Carried, from Coppola's Apocalypse Now to Kubrick's Full-Metal Jacket), seems also to inform Johnson's recent production. Hence, this begs the question (as some initial reviewers of Tree of Smoke did, notably those who panned it for what they saw as its derivative, over-done nature): do we really need yet another big book (this one runs a whopping 614 pages) about Vietnam and our doomed adventure there?

Well, no, and yes. While Tree of Smoke encompasses a dizzying array of characters (some whose contours become so blurred it's hard to distinguish them at all), a labyrinthine plot that stretches chronologically from the death of JFK to the Reagan '80s, a hallucinatory prose style that seems to mimic sensually the jungle fever of its setting, and a pastiche of inter/meta-textual allusions to its literary and cinematic predecessors, Johnson's novel nevertheless takes the Vietnam story to the proverbial "end of the road," and then beyond such into an at least metaphorically post-apocalyptic historical or societal milieu. That is, as critic Todd Gitlin puts it in reference to such postmodern American novels and their cultural contexts, such "recombinant" fictions like Tree of Smoke reflect a kind of "anticipatoiy shell-shock. It's as if the bomb has already fallen" (36). And perhaps it has---for Tree's characters (like Skip; Col. Francis X. Sands, his legendary uncle; Kath Bill & James Houston; and Jimmy Storm, to cite just a few of the principals), and certainly following their respective war-era lives and times, exhibit "a passive adaptation to feeling historically stranded--after the 1960s, but before what? Perhaps the bomb ..." (Gitlin 36). Or, as one reviewer claims, "the apocalypse is more often personal than planetary" (Connors 253) for Johnson's characters, and it's how they manage to live after "The End" that Tree best charts. Thus, Johnson's book, albeit treading some old, trampled, even "defoliated" ground, is ultimately less about Vietnam than it is about the sense of aftermath or psychological and emotional "fallout" that afflicts those who survived it, those on the periphery of it, and those left to chronicle it in our own post-historical present--and with that "it" holding some particularly-resonant parallels to or "unsettling echoes of the current American [debacle] in Iraq" (see Kakutani E.25).

One reviewer of Tree of Smoke, commenting on its "large-scale narrative effects," which include "compressing long stretches of time into a single paragraph, or masking crucial events in impregnable lacuna," asks us to "[i]magine Don DeLillo and Joseph Heller fused" (Poole 53) in the same book. The reference to the latter novelist seems particularly relevant, since like Heller's Catch-22 (1961) is less about World War II than the "unreal reality" or "frightening rationality" (Pratt 298, 299) of the Vietnam War that it prefigures, Johnson's Tree of Smoke is less "about Vietnam," or about it "in only a very superficial sense" (Beck 86), than an ominous look forward into a post-apocalyptic landscape, both regional and global, toward millennium's end. …

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