Denis Johnson's Higher Power
Connors, Philip, The Virginia Quarterly Review
Denis Johnson's Higher Power Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2007. $27
The Vietnam War has been present, if only tangentially, in the fiction of Denis Johnson all along. In Jesus' Son (1993), a collection of stories and Johnson's best-known work, one of the minor characters is a draft-dodging kid who appears by the side of the road, hitching his way to Canada. In Fiskadoro (1985), a post-apocalyptic novel set in the Florida Keys in the mid-twenty first century, the only character with distinct memories of the Time Before is a centenarian, now mute, named Grandma Wright, the daughter of an Englishman and his Vietnamese wife. The thing she recalls most vividly is her escape from Vietnam in the last days of the war, on a helicopter that crashed in the China Sea, killing nearly everyone but her. She goes over and over this memory in her mind, working it like a string of worry beads-perhaps the final link to life on earth in the twentieth century.
In Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), the pilot of that helicopter, Nguyen Minh, makes a brief appearance, and Lenny English, the novel's protagonist, is haunted by "a tattooed ghost that was stalking him, the dead GI in Vietnam, the one who'd been drafted in Lenny's place, sent overseas in Lenny's place, marched over swamps and shot and killed instead of Lenny." As far back as Angels (1983), Vietnam was present, if only implicitly. Angels charted the descent of two brothers, James and Bill Houston, on their way to prison and death row after a bank heist gone wrong. Now, in light of Johnson's new novel, Tree of Smoke, which gives us the back story of both men, we can see Angels for what it is, at least in part: a horror story of men who've returned from war to a life of no purpose.
Tree of Smoke is many things-Johnson's magnum opus, a pastiche of Vietnam novels and movies and nonfiction accounts, a philosophical exploration of military intelligence, an atmospheric thriller in the mode of Graham Greene or John Le Carré-but perhaps most interestingly it is the prequel we didn't know existed to Johnson's entire body of work. No fewer than eight of its characters have appeared in Johnson's other novels, and perhaps more: an interesting but futile guessing game results after a while. Is the missionary and aid worker Kathy Jones of Tree of Smoke the cynical, unnamed narrator of The Stars at Noon, Johnson's moody novel of Nicaragua in the mid-1980s? And is the Englishman with whom that narrator becomes fatally entangled related, somehow, to Anders Pitchfork, the British ex-paratrooper who appears in Tree of Smoke? Even more interesting, perhaps: was Tree of Smoke the novel Johnson meant to give us in, say, 1980, but was bedeviled by for nearly three decades?
If so, it was worth the wait.
DENIS JOHNSON WAS BORN in Munich in 1949, the son of a US Information Agency official and his wife. He grew up in Tokyo, Manila, and the Virginia suburbs outside Washington DC; published his first book of poems at the age of nineteen; earned first a BA in English and later a MFA from the University of Iowa. There he studied, and drank, with Raymond Carver during the Bad Ray days. By all accounts his future as a writer appeared bright, but as Johnson later put it, "I went from prodigy to prodigal in a hurry."
The cause was addiction to alcohol and, later, hard drugs, including heroin. This is the piece of Johnson's biography that has become legend. Jesus' Son, his collection of autobiographical stories revolving around the misadventures of a character known mostly as Fuckhead, mines the period of Johnson's life during his run of addiction in the 1970s. When I took my one and only creative writing class at the University of Montana in the 1990s, not long after the book came out, it seemed to me and my fellow fiction aspirants to obliterate, once and for all, the influence of Carver on our feeble attempts at the short story. …