Printer Friendly

Apocalypse now, & again: Johnson's Tree of Smoke and the Vietnam war narrative revisited.

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. (1) That is, "Vietnam," like the floating signifier of the book's title (which is both an apocalyptic reference to a passage from the Book of Joel--"and I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and palm trees of smoke," 2: 30, 31 [qtd. in Tree 445]--as well as code-name for the Colonel's 19000-item card-file on covert operations against the Vietcong), serves as an all-inclusive metaphor in Tree of Smoke for that pervasive sense of resignation or aftermath its characters (whether directly engaged in the war operations or not) exhibit in a nearly past-historical world. Moreover, as one critic puts it, Tree traces "the logic of American life--and how it brutalizes the segment of the American economy left behind by changes in the ... economy after 1945. Vietnam is the most violent, loudest expression of this change--but it hardly exhausts it" (Gessen 43).

Many of Tree's aimless characters, such as the Houston brothers, seem to exist in a kind of "purgatory, waiting impatiently, even expectantly, for the coming apocalypse" (Kakutani E. 25). Catch-22, too, there is a feeling of deja vu that infects Johnson's novel and his characters' growingly entropic lives, as well. During a 1996 interview, Heller responded to a remark about two characters killed-off in Catch-22, McWatt and Kid Sampson, who then make a reappearance from the grave in the sequel, Closing Time (1994), and who realize pathetically that "they'll have to go in again." The interviewer, Charlie Reilley, finds their concluding statement "heartbreaking," to which Heller replies, "It is heartbreaking. Since I began Closing Time, we've had Grenada, and The Gulf War. They'H find a reason to go in again, and again, and again" (325). Johnson in Tree, then, "appears to want to induce in his readers a sense of comfort, as if to say: We've all been here before. Relax. It turns out the same way it always does" (Connors 254). Even this notion alludes to the refrain from Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young's early-70s song "Deja vu." "Johnson's work borrows freely and often from rock and roll culture" (2) (see Parrish n.4, 29), and refrerances to pop music singers and groups of the period permeate the novel, from Percy Sledge to Bob Dylan and The Doors--as when Jimmy Storm, long after the war is over and still questing obsessively after the Colonel throughout the region, tells a Hindu sooth-sayer in Kuala Lampur, who had asked him what he "'would say if [he] spoke to God,"' "'Break on Through," it's a song. It's my philosophy, my motto....Break on Through'" (554). Thus, as Philip Connors contends, Johnson "offers us a look at all the reasons it [i.e., war] will only continue to happen, again and again and again" (256)--similar to what Steely Dan tells us, if more generically and cryptically, in its 1972 hit "Do it Again."

Hence, Tree "ends" not with the fall of Saigon in 1975 but in early 1980s America, and at (he height of Reagan's Cold War, "Evil Empire" rhetorical brinkmanship--which, not surprisingly, sounds remarkably similar to the Colonel's pompous, foreboding statements about the Communist scourge in Southeast Asia during the '60s. Even in 1965 while in the Philippines and before the "hot" war of Vietnam to come, the Colonel, "a larger-than-life presence" who "comes to be considered, by other spooks, as a kind of Kurtz figure (3): gone native, gone mad, to be eliminated" (Poole 52), tells his nephew Skip, '"We've been in a worldwide war, have been for close to twenty years.... It's a covert World/War Three. It's Armageddon by proxy. It's a contest between good and evil.... This is a fallen world. Every time we turn around there's somebody else going Red'" (Tree 56-7). The language of fear, the stark binaries, the "us vs. them" paranoid mentality: all of the Colonel's bluster and often drunken hyperbole looks ahead as well to our most recent clash of ideologies or cultural paradigms, just this time around in the Middle East--it's as if Johnson is saying only the terms (i.e,, substitute "terrorism" for "communism") and players have changed, but little else, as we can't ever expect them to. Later and in Vietnam (1967), when it has become more than evident that the Colonel and his minions are, as Jimmy Storm puts it, "'operating without benefit of any clear parameters at all'" (190), from the CIA or any other government entity, Col. Sands explains (and complains) in his notes to an unauthorized article he's writing (and Skip is perusing in draft form) the significance of his "Tree of Smoke" project:

... (pillar of smoke, pillar of fire) the "guiding light" of a sincere goal for the function of intelligence--restoring intelligence-gathering as the main function of intelligence operations, rather than provide rationalizations for policy. Because if we don't, the next step is for career-minded power-mad cynical jaded bureaucrats to use intelligence to influence policy. The final step is to create fictions and serve them to our policy-makers in order to control the direction of government. ALSO--"Tree of Smoke"--note similarity to mushroom cloud. HAH! (Tree 254)

Once again, the Colonel comes to believe intelligence is being perverted, "much the [same] way flawed intelligence was used, in the walk-up to the Iraq War, to provide a rationalization for the invasion" (Kakutani E. 25). But such absurd (as the Col.'s "HAH!" acknowledges) "logic" used to "draw ... the country into war" (Gessen 42), which is old-hat, or a second-hand tactic, at best, is tainted by the deadly, apocalyptic tenor of that final graphic image in his marginalia. In Tree, therefore, while the "everything-old-is-new-again"-motif plays out with some not-so-veiled allusions to the Iraq conflict, there is also the dark "cloud" of nuclear threat, or the "World War III," as the Colonel puts it, that looms over the present and future landscape, and both at the time and now, as well, or in the early years of the 21st century.

In myriad ways, then, and particularly through its characterization, thematic emphases, and stylistic flourishes, it is fitting that Tree reads like a pastiche of other Vietnam stories, since that war produced a "vast literature ... more than four hundred novels, hundreds of poems, short-stories, and plays" (Pratt 300) by 1991 alone, or the year John Clark Pratt published his review article on the sub-genre. However, one distinct difference between that sense of deja vu evoked in, say, Catch-22 compared to Tree of Smoke concerns the basic nature of Vietnam novels per se, which, as Pratt explains, "are [often] darkly prophetic, and each is really a warning more about the future ... than it is about the war in which it is supposedly set"; moreover, they tend to "offer an apocalyptic vision of technology defeating itself' (302). Or, in the "best Vietnam novels is ... what [critic Philip] Beidler identifies as 'Catch-22 come giddily real'" (qtd. in Pratt 303). And, unlike Yossarian in Heller's novel, in many of these Vietnam novels, "if any of the characters survive, they do so by chance, and their main objectives are to exist within the madness, not escape it. Even if they do survive the war, they will encounter a similar environment at home" (Pratt 306). As Pratt summarizes, such characters "in these apocalyptic [Vietnam] novels ... want only to be let alone in a crazy world that is bound to get even worse" (306).

So, if Heller's Yossarian and Kesey's Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) (another example of what Tom Leclair calls "the [contemporary American] systems novel" [6] of the 1960s-70s) are "still able to get out[,] [n]ot so fortunate are their fictional heirs" (Pratt 306). Johnson's Houston brothers, Bill & James (the former first appeared in and "carried" his 1983 novel Angels "and met a bad end" [see Lewis 8]), are a telling example of such entrapment in a "fallen world"--for them, it's apocalypse now, and again, and everywhere, including "'back [in] the world'" (516), as James and his grunt buddies refer to it. Hence, when they return home, it is to the wasteland-like environs of Phoenix, AZ, a setting in many ways more emotionally and psychologically-deadening than their lives led on the edge while in the Pacific Rim or theatre (Bill in the Philippines, Japan, and Hawaii, and James as a foot soldier and later a tunnel-rat, part of the self-named "Kootehy Kooties," in South Vietnam). In much of Tree, "we find characters rushing toward their doom with something like relish, as if damnation were a reward and not a punishment. How does someone like James Houston reach that point? ... He goes to war" (Connors 254).

For James at least, the war offers a "kind of intoxication," even a "toxic ecstasy" (Poole 53) he'll never come close to approximating again, whether that's "back home" or anywhere else. Early in his first tour of duty, for example, James watches, fascinated, in a bar while a Vietnamese prostitute named Virgin blows smoke from a lit cigarette stuck in her vagina, and he "felt as if his head had been chopped off and thrown in boiling water ... God almighty, some portion of him prayed, if this is war, let peace never come" (209). Then, amidst the pandemonium of his first firefight during the Tet Offensive, his impressions are "all very vivid and disordered. He knew one thing. He never moved so fast or felt so certain of what he was doing. All the bullshit had been burned away" (282). And after re-upping for a second tour, he responds to a Recon man's incredulous question, '"Don't you want to see home?"' with '"This war is my home'" (my emphasis, 326). But once finally discharged (against his will) (4) and returned to the States, it becomes evident why he had adopted such an attitude: he's spit-back into the same mindless routine of dead-end jobs and repetitious actions, and onto "file Deuce," or the same skid-row area of Phoenix, "the street of outlaws and whores" (526), as brother Bill was before him, and to the same end:

In the morning he [James] set-out walking, rarely stopping. To the west lay factories and warehouses. In the other directions file city gave way to suburban tracts, empty desert, or irrigated farmland.... Only half of him was plugged in. The rest was dark. He could feel his sensors dying. (Tree 526)

Both Bill and James actually begin to prefer the prospect of "even jail" (358) to its stark alternatives; theirs is, as critic David Gessen puts it, "a world where the police, the Army and one's friends [at] home cease to be distinguishable in any meaningful way. Step to the left and you are in prison; step to the right and you're in file Army. Keep going forward and you're stuck in some awful job. At least in Vietnam you get to shoot people" (43). Or as Bill thinks at one point, he'd go "anywhere [including back to the lock-up] but his mother's house. Her zealous hope of Heaven [i.e., she's a trailer-trash holy-roller raising a younger son, Burris, who's already strung-out on drugs by junior high school] made it Hell there" (358). It's the "tenors of home" (Gessen 43), not war, that continue to plague James: even after arrested in 1970 for his fourth armed robbery and knowing, once convicted, he'll get sent to the state pen in Florence--and he and brother Bill in fact are "on their way to prison and death row after a bank heist gone wrong" (see Connors 251) in Johnson's early novel, Angels (1983)--he "might have run away to Mexico, but he was tired, very tired" (528). There is "no direction home ..." (595), as Tree's narrator quotes from the Dylan lyric ("Like a Rolling Stone") toward the book's close, because there is no home left for these bedraggled J vets, if there ever was to begin with: or, following from another song of the period, for the Houston f brothers, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," as Kris Kristopherson's "Me & Bobby Magee," popularized by Jams Joplin, so aptly defines their predicament.

This resignation to "The End" (see Tree 518: "'This is the end,"' Bill tries telling himself)-after the title of another song by The Doors and the apocalyptic anthem that haunts the close of Coppola's film--whether it's in the war zone itself or back in the States, is reminiscent in tone to another post-Vietaam novel and its characters' conflicts, Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country (1985). Set in the early 1980s in rural, small-town Kentucky (in a place named, ironically, "Hopewell"), it features Emmett, a PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet, who tries to explain to Sam, his teenaged niece whose father was killed in the war, why she'll never understand "what it was like" in Vietnam, and why he can't tell her, either:

"Maybe you have to find out for yourself. Fuck. You can't learn from the past. The main thing you learn from history is that you can't learn from history. That's what history is." (226)

So, in like manner, in Johnson's book of course Skip is initially naive and idealistic, the Colonel is a larger-than-life, gung-ho Kurtz-figure, and Jimmy Storm is a whacked-out, drug-addled, schizoid spook who both worships and finally distrusts his boss -that is, they've become the cliches of history, both literary and socio-cultural, because they repeat it so accurately, consciously or not. Moreover, Tree of Smoke "openly invites other literary analogies ... and references" (Poole 52), especially in terms of what might be called such "composite" characters. Skip, for instance, is a combination of Ron Kovic from Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Martin Sheen's Cap. Benjamin Willard from Apocalypse Now, who himself is derived from Conrad's Marlowe in Heart of Darkness. Both Skip and Willard are from the "heartland," the American Midwest (Skip from Clements, KS, which he first views with an almost Wizard of Oz-like awe and nostalgic love [see Tree 64], and Willard from Toledo, OH, as he tells Kurtz during one of their first meetings in the mad-colonel's Cambodian compound); both are CIA operatives (although Willard is a former one and much more tired, hopeless, and jaded than Skip even upon his arrival in Vietnam); and both are faced with the prospect of hunting down, whether literally (for Willard) or figuratively (for Skip), a legendary military man gone berserk, "gone native." As Willard says in a voice-over at the beginning of the film, "For my sins, they gave me a mission," and Skip's "mission" of plumbing the depths of the Colonel's "Tree of Smoke" project-files and coming to terms with his Uncle's tarnished legacy is undertaken with an equally religious sensibility and ultimately accompanied by guilt. Colonel Sands, as well, is a hodge-podge of other "stock characters" (Connors 255); as Tree's narrator describes him, "the Colonel was part joke, part sinister mystery. Sometimes he sounded like a cracker, other times like a Kennedy" (210), as when he pontificates (to anyone who will listen):

"Think of us as infiltrators. This land under our feet is where the Vietcong locate their national heart. This land is their myth [again; or, we've heard this spiel before]. We penetrate this land, we penetrate their heart, their myth, their soul. That's the real infiltration. And that's our mission: penetrating the myth of the land." (212)

Thus, before too long, we're aware that the Colonel's posturing represents a "myth" of rhetoric, as well, a creation of his own bloated, if quite derivative, self-image. He's a walking, talking cliche of the military-general/genius gone over-the-edge or to the "dark side," with equal parts of Apocalypse Now's Col. Kurtz (a la Brando) and Robert Duvall's Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, or "Big Duke," the fearless soldier-leader who "love[s] the smell of napalm in the morning" and whose own absurd version of Psy Ops includes blasting Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" from speakers in his helicopter gunship as he strafes and bombs a village (Rhodes), and also Catch 22's Col. Cathcart and Major Major--all rolled into one. As James views him when they talk in a bar following the chaos of Tet, "Here was a fat-ass civilian discussing warts, and here also a living legend--a life of blood and war and pussy" (328-29), or the quintessential, archetypal, and "aboriginal Man of Action" (Tree 344).

Jimmy Storm, the "quivering bird-dog sergeant" (303) and the Colonel's right-hand man or obedient acolyte, bears a strong resemblance, too, especially in his speech, to the spaced-out ; freelance photographer in Apocalypse Now, played by Dennis Hopper, who calls Kurtz "a poet warrior in the classic sense" (qtd. in Rhodes). Storm, under the thumb of the Colonel and moved by his Kurtz-esque pronouncements (which are themselves gleaned shamelessly from Conrad and Eliot) on Vietnam as "'[under] the administration of an alien God ... a land where the fate of human beings is completely different from what you understood it to be ... [an] utterly different universe administered through the earth itself" (63), says to Skip, "'We're on the cutting edge of reality itself. Right where it turns into a dream"' (Tree 189). And on the war-effort, Storm tells Skip, '"Ain't no big shit whether we win or lose this thing. We live in the post-trash, man ... there's been this unanimous worldwide decision to trash the planet and get on to a new one. If we let this door close, another will open'" (194). Perhaps this is why much later, in 1983, convinced the Colonel is still alive, despite all the rational evidence to the contrary, Storm treks through Malaysia to the border with Thailand (in which he's heard the Colonel is operating a clandestine arms-operation) and eventually offers himself up in a bizarre local ritual of human sacrifice, first mouthing his Doors' mantra of "Break on Through," and then the mock-epiphantic declaration, '"I AM THE TRUE COMPENSATOR ... I was sent.... I know what's real'" (593) as he is tied by a pagan priest/shaman to a pyre and torched. Resigned to the inevitablist theories of the times, Storm, who once said "'This place [i.e., Vietnam] is Disneyland on acid'" (472), "waited for ... the judgment of the lord of death before the mirror of karma, the punishments of the demons, and the flight to the refuge in the cave of the womb that would bear him back into the world" (596)--i.e., ironically, then, not to "the other side" (to finish the line from The Doors' song), but "'Back to Planet E,"' the '"shit-hole"' (307) to which he vowed he'd never return. So in a sense, Storm himself has certainly "gone native" and plunged into that proverbial if stereotypical "heart of darkness," even if the Colonel has not.

Both in theme and characterization, then, Tree of Smoke is a bricolage or a "pastiche of Vietnam novels and movies and non-fiction accounts" (Connors 251), with Johnson "seeming to have absorbed every move of every classic book ever created on the subject--from Platoon and Apocalypse Now to Michael Herr's Dispatchesas Connors sees it, "We are, I think, meant to be lulled by the familiar rhythms of dead-pan dialogue among grunts, the familiar hubris of a power-mad genius [here, Col. Francis Sands] in a position to ruin lives. Yet Johnson refuses simplification" (254). That is, the usual binary oppositions of good/evil, logic/madness, and countless others continually break-down or shift throughout the book, as does certainty vs. doubt, at least for Skip Sands, the chief protagonist, who comes to realize his role as "an arbiter of fragmentary histories" (Tree 247). Kathy Jones, supplying an orphanage and working for an international relief organization in Vietnam, sums-up this endemic sense of contradiction and uncertainty in her picture of the American soldiers she has encountered, as they would pull her heart out in an undertow of joy and sorrow, guilt, anger, and affection....
   They threw hand grenades through doorways and blew the arms and
   legs off ignorant farmers, they rescued puppies from starvation and
   smuggled them home to Mississippi in their shirts, they burned down
   whole villages and raped young girls, they stole medicines by the
   jeepload to save the lives of orphans, (309)


Moreover, the novel's basic structure/chronology, like the nearly decade-long "conflict" itself, is based on the principle of "escalation": incrementally, from late 1963 and the assassination of JFK, and the first so-called military "advisers," like Col, Sands, in the area; through the carnivalesque and orgiastic "climax" of the Tet Offensive in January of 1968; followed, in the States, by the assassinations of MLK and RFK ; riots, including at the Democratic National Convention; and protests--on these upheavals back home, Skip at one point thinks, "He devoured Time and Newsweek and found it all written down there, yet these events seemed improbable, fictitious" (329)--to the almost anti-climactic years of 1969, 1970, and beyond, "when the war seem[ed] not so much lost as running down on the political, military, and cultural energy powering it earlier" (Coan 70), or a casualty of its own entropie weight or lethargy. Even by 1969, following the Colonel's supposed and wildly-rumored death at the hands of the Vietcong (and some of the stories of his demise and burial sound like a cross between Faulkner and the "tall tale" tradition and Garcia Marquez's "magical realism" as evidenced in a story like "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" [1968]--see Tree 432, 450), Skip senses little but "a state of disarray and pointless aftermath, a new flavor to his imprisonment" (445) as he continues to struggle to decipher the contents of his uncle's notorious card-file at the Villa Bouquet (5) in the Cho Phuc province where he has been holed-up--a futile effort, at best, as he well knows.

Thus, as Pratt concludes, the "Vietnam novel," Tree included, tends to be more pessimistic, "dark," and "despair"-ridden than earlier war fictions:
   Close inspection of the Vietnam War fiction that evolved from
   [novels such as] Catch-22 ... show[s] a darkening vision and
   growing despair over the progress of the modern world, [as] the
   authors despair in our ability to perceive what we are doing to
   ourselves, especially with our dependence upon technology and
   media. Like Heller, these novelists point toward a future that is
   indeed Catch-22 become real. In almost everything that has happened
   in the past twenty-five years [i.e., from 1966-91], Heller was
   really quite prophetic. (307)


However, "the subsequent fiction about the Vietnam War shows that there is no longer an equivalent to Yossarian and Orr's World War II Sweden, no place left for Americans to escape even from themselves" (Pratt 307)--or, again, and echoing Jim Morrison's lyric, "No one here gets out alive," finally and irrevocably. Therefore, despite Storm's crazed chant, there may be nowhere to "Break on Through," or no "other side" to flee to--whether that's Thailand for the Colonel toward the novel's end (and the mystery of his final whereabouts or living vs. dead status remains just that--indeterminate, or, fittingly, unclear and unresolved) or even back to the American Midwest, which, for Skip at least, is no longer real, even by late 1968, and after Tet (during which he witnessed the brutal torture and then murder of a captured Vietcong soldier by the Colonel's own rag-tag troops, which included James Houston), My Lai, as well as the political shootings and street-violence in the U. S., or atrocities both in Vietnam and at home:
   In six or seven months the homeland from which he was exiled had
   sunk into the ocean of its future history. Clements, Kansas,
   remained as it had been ... to Clements, Kansas, only one summer
   could come.... Gone, stupidly gone--not the summer, but
   himself.... He loved and fought for a memory. The world inheriting
   this memory had a right ... to make its way unbeholden to
   unassassinated ideals. (329)


That is, his sense of nostalgic idealism toward the place is "gone," too, and only a "memory" remains, although even that not for very long. Ultimately, while Skip, dead like the Colonel and Storm by the book's denouement or coda, won't get the chance to "do it again"--repeat the past, compensate for personal transgressions, or rewrite the historical record--Johnson intimates in Tree of Smoke that the rest of us, as well as a handful of his resigned survivors, like Kathy Jones and James Houston, certainly will--since, after all, we are "doing it" right now in our own post-apocalyptic cultural milieu. "All will be saved. All will be saved" (6) (614)--these are Kathy's last musings as the book closes in an auditorium back in Minneapolis (where the Amerasian children-refugees of American soldiers are being honored) and far from the madness of that not-so-distant time and place, but one wonders whether redemption is possible "after the end," Johnson seems to ask, or just wishful thinking, and both for these characters and his present-day readers here, or "back in the world."

Work Cited

Beck, Stefan. "The Art of Darkness." Rev. of Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. The New Criterion November 2007: 86-7. Print.

Coan, Jim. Rev. of Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. Library Journal 1 August 2007:69-70. Print.

Connors, Philip. "Denis Johnson's Higher Power." Rev. of Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson.

Virginia Quarterly Review 84.1 (Winter 2008): 251-57. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 May 2008.

Gessen, Keith. "Gracelands." Rev. of Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. The Nation 5 November 2007: 40-4. Print.

Gittin, Todd. "Hip-Deep in Postmodernism." New York Times Book Review 6 November 1988: 1, 35-6. Print.

Johnson, Denis. Fiskadoro. 1985. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995. Print.

--. The Name of the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.

--. Tree of Smoke. New York: Farrar, 2007. Print

Kakutani, Michiko. "In Vietnam: Stars and Stripes, and Innocence Undone." Rev. of Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. New York Times Late ed., East Coast, 31 August 2007: E.25. Print.

Leclair, T om. The Art of Excess'. Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989. Print.

Lewis, Jim. "The Revelator." Rev. of Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. New York Times Book Review 2 September 2007: 1, 8. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 24 August 2008.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Print.

Parrish, Timothy L. "Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son: To Kingdom Come." Critique. Studies in Contemporary Fiction A3.A (2001): 17-29. Print

Poole, Steven. "Reality Bites." Rev. of Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. New Statesman 12 November 2007: 52-3. Print

Pratt, John Claik. "Yossarian's Legacy: Catch-22 and the Vietnam War." In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature. Ed. Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1991. 88-110. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda

Pavlovski. Vol. 151. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004. 298-307. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 19 June 2008.

Reuley, Charlie. "An Interview with Joseph Heller." Contemporary Literature 39.4 (Winter 1998): 507-22. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavlovski. Vol. 151. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004. 320-26. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 19 June 2008.

Rhodes, Steve. Rev. of Apocalypse Now Redux, dir, Francis Ford Coppola. All-Reviews.com Movie/Video Review 2001. Web. 24 August 2008.

David Buehrer

Valdosta State University

Notes

(1) See Don DeLillo's 1991 novel Mao II for a strikingly similar "millennial" mood or atmosphere expressed by its author. More directly, Johnson's novel Fiskadoro (1985) is set in a post-apocalyptic Key West in 2060, and one of its character, Grandmother Wright, in fact "mark[s] the end of the world as having begun" (72) for her first with her escape from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, when she is "saved" (218) after the helicopter she is riding in crashes in the China Sea.

(2) In Fiskadoro, for instance, Johnson sprinkles-in allusions to The Rolling Stones ("Sweet Virginia"), Bad Company ("Ready for Love"), Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Marley, and Dylan ("Man of Peace"), among others; and in his novella The Name of the World (2000), one of its minor characters "fed some dollars to the jukebox and set it to play 'Let Me Roll It' by Paul McCartney [from the 1973 album Band on the Run] indefinitely" (77).

(3) Or, as one critic quips, the description of Col. Sands in Tree perhaps "sounds a little too Kurtzy for comfort" (Beck 86)!

(4) James has murdered a young Vietnamese woman, later saying to his captain, who is interrogating him about the incident, "'She was a VC whore [...] and this is a war. Sir'" (521). The captain, fearing that James' "'fragging'" (523) of a local will stick to this superior and get him in hot water with the higher-ups, especially since James " lintend[s] to do a fourth tour'" (521), hands him over to Sergeant Lorin, who tells James, "T think you're gonna have to go home / ... Just go. I'll furlough you, and ... we'll work all the paper to make it permanent'" (524). Thus, James Houston, a rapist and '"fucking murderer,'" as the captain puts it (520), is given an '"Honorable Discharge'" (Tree 524) and sent packing to Arizona.

(5) This is the abandoned estate of a French colonial doctor who apparently blew himself up in one of the local VC tunnels, suggesting a precedent for Skip's own descent into disillusionment and madness.

(6) For Marie Wright in Fiskadorot to "be saved" is indeed a passive process, as she is plucked or "taken" (218) from the sea just before drowning, but certainly "all" aren't so lucky.
COPYRIGHT 2012 West Virginia University, Department of Foreign Languages
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Denis Johnson
Author:Buehrer, David
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2012
Words:5549
Previous Article:Introduction.
Next Article:Fantastical cinematic disavowals of war--fantasy as a coping mechanism?
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters