Denis Johnson's fiction is peopled with a lively and often lurid cast of junkies, strung-out crooks, and spiritually wounded drifters, so it's not the first place you'd expect to find a fervent young patriot like William "Skip" Sands. During the lengthy Philippines-set prelude in Tree of Smoke, the author's ambitious novel about the Vietnam War, we are told that the restless CIA operative considers "both the Agency and his country to be glorious"; unnerved by an exotic sunset over Manila Bay, he tastes "tears in his throat" at the sight of the Stars and Stripes fluttering above an American military compound. As someone "determined to find good heroes," he idolizes John F. Kennedy to the point of growing his hair out in emulation of the late president, for whom, even in 1965, he can still passionately lament, "I wish he hadn't died! How did it happen? Where do we go from here?" Sands's subversive undercurrent will eventually wage war with his entire being, but at the outset of Tree of Smoke his rebelliousness is expressed no more daringly than by the cultivation of a luxuriant mustache.
Admirers of Johnson's more customary portraits need worry not: Tree of Smoke, a tortuous epic of American counterinsurgency in Asia, presents an array of characters bearing familiar Johnsonian auras of desperation, threat, and abjection. In fact, two of the novel's characters, the half brothers Bill and James Houston, are taken from Johnson's first novel, Angels (1983), where their doomed fates lead to a botched heist in which Bill murders a bank guard and is executed for his crime; in Tree of Smoke, Johnson traces their grim military backstories, scarcely hinted at in the earlier book. Sands himself stands out as a rare specimen only because of his zeal for his country. He shares with Johnson's more marginal figures an intimate acquaintance with fear, a condition that even when attaching itself to specific experiences seems an expression of some basic predicament of being, like sin in Christian theology. "Anger is fear," concludes the nameless female narrator of Johnson's Graham Greene–ish novel The Stars at Noon (1986). "Lust is fear. Grief, excitement, weariness are fear—just feel down far enough, look hard enough."
Not all of Johnson's characters find themselves so tormented, and some enjoy blessedly uncomplicated states of narcissism or depravity or mere unscrupulousness. But the people whom Johnson asks his readers to care about tend to be those who suffer queasy bouts of inner terror. In Tree of Smoke, Sands's fears, even when they can be pinpointed—"Skip was afraid of women," we are laconically informed— are best understood as manifestations of something larger, a malaise that troubles him even as he yearns for an adventure in which to prove himself. On his debut mission as a spy, he is repulsed by a primitive toilet, and, "plunged . . . into a spiritual nausea," he tells himself that "he'd expected on assignments of this kind to experience isolation and terror; but not merely at the sight of the plumbing." A missionary priest, slowly losing his mind in a remote Philippine village, regards him and finds "at the very center of his eyes a terrified loneliness." Sands is thus kin to such Johnson characters as the recovering addict known only as Fuckhead, who, narrating the lavishly (and deservedly) acclaimed story collection Jesus' Son (1992), recounts how "We had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son," and perceives in the dust storms raging out of the Arizona desert apocalyptic intimations of "a terrifying new era approaching, blurring our dreams."
Jesus' Son is a triumph of obliqueness, and its reader is never quite sure, sentence by sentence, where he or she will end up next. Johnson is adroit in all his fiction at presenting states of consciousness that are cloudy, off-kilter, or simply unprepared for the reality (often meaning the menace) of what is unfolding outside the mind's borders. The lag in perception offers a space for bracing defamiliarization. Take, in Tree of Smoke, the attempt of a Vietcong operative to kill both Sands's uncle, a CIA official known as the colonel, and the Vietnamese man cooperating with him:
Both men were distracted by a small rat or frog hopping boldly into the room through the front door. The colonel astonished Hao by reacting to this intrusion violently, flinging himself bodily at the small man and knocking him backward, chair and all, so that the back of Hao's head struck the packed dirt floor and a pain burst over his sight like an explosion of freezing needles. His vision cleared as the object, for that is what it was, and not some rodent, stopped only a meter from his face, and he understood that it was probably a grenade; it was his death.
In describing the ambush (which fails, because the grenade is faulty), the colonel's quick-reflex heroics are less interesting to Johnson than the absurd and wholly plausible reaction of Hao when what seems to be an innocuous animal is suddenly transformed, as if in a dream, into a harbinger of his death. Several things are brilliantly askew in the passage. An unexpected touch of wryness comes across in the incongruously fastidious phrases "chair and all" and "for that is what it was," and Hao's pain is curiously disembodied, erupting in the abstract space "over his sight" rather than from anywhere within him. What buoys Johnson's writing and lends it a poetic cast are its odd angles and unusual vantages, along with his gift—as evinced by the "pain . . . like an explosion of freezing needles," a fusion of violence and surprise in a hot country like Vietnam—for striking metaphor.
Sometimes, though, Johnson's formidable talents of description and evocation have exceeded his ability to fulfill larger structural and thematic ambitions. His last full-length novel, the muddled, overlong Already Dead: A California Gothic (1997), must tax all but the most forgiving reader, particularly because of its oftenportentous dialogue. There is also the problem of squalor. Johnson conveys a debased world as well as anyone, but the hells that envelop his narratives can come off as machinelike systems that render morality irrelevant, even as he insists we attend to the ethical dilemmas of his characters. This trouble derails The Stars at Noon, a book whose action takes place within the suffocating setting of Nicaragua under the Sandinistas; the corruption is total, so that the force of the novel's central betrayal and its resulting revelation ("It's not enough to observe. . . . I have to confess . . . that the suffering of the afflicted pays for me") is neutralized. As are the novel's politics, which pervade the story but, as part of the book's deterministic underworld, can merely be an element of the mise-en-scène. And yet Johnson appears to care about politics; he was careful, for example, to set the main action of Already Dead against the run-up to the first Gulf War, though the precise significance of such a background is elusive.
The view of politics and history informing Tree of Smoke is, by contrast, quite explicit. The son of a father who died at Pearl Harbor, Skip Sands has grown up in awe of his uncle Colonel Francis Xavier Sands, an inevitable father surrogate whose World War II exploits included, most spectacularly, a death-defying escape from a Japanese prison ship. After the war, the colonel entered the newly formed CIA and battled insurgencies in Asia with the famed spy Edward Lansdale; by the time his nephew arrives in Vietnam, in 1967, the colonel has established an impressive unauthorized fief in and around the village of Cao Phuc, outfitted with a mountainside landing strip and its own infantry platoon, with whose help he plans to launch a hazily adumbrated assault against Vietcong tunnels. The generational friction that emerges between Sands and his uncle in the novel's central plotline, a drama of loyalty and betrayal, carries traces of a familiar historical allegory, one that posits a tragic fall from grace somewhere between Iwo Jima and the Tet offensive. "There was once a war in Asia," reflects Sands in the novel's closing pages, having arrived at a fate that would have been unthinkable when he'd gamely joined the CIA in the '50s, "that had among its tragedies the fact that it followed World War II, a modern war that had somehow managed to retain or revive some of the glories and romances of earlier wars. This Asian war however failed to give any romances outside of hellish myths." The colonel embodies the confident postwar swagger of those elder warriors touched by such "glories and romances," but sometimes the effort to distinguish him from the men under his command results in stiff characterization. After shooting a Vietcong prisoner to put a stop to his torture by American grunts enraged at the wounding of their sergeant, he admonishes the soldiers with wooden speechifying: "There is a great deal I'll do in the name of anti- Communism. A great deal. But by God, there's a limit."
Such declarations notwithstanding, the colonel is no upstanding Greatest Generation icon but something murkier, one of the "Irregulars" whom Michael Herr wrote about in Dispatches, "spooks . . . whose authority was absolute in hamlets or hamlet complexes where they ran their ops until the wind changed and their ops got run back on them." The story of Sands and his uncle's clandestine operations might, in fact, be regarded as an outsize gloss on the few pages Herr devoted to "spookwar" in his 1977 book. And the colonel, given to gnomic pronouncements about Vietnam ("We penetrate this land, we penetrate their heart, their myth, their soul") and hounded by his foes at the CIA for his unorthodox methods of counterinsurgency, is a patent variation on that other colonel, Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz, the most notorious rogue soldier in the imaginative mythology of the Vietnam War. Over the course of Tree of Smoke, the colonel is transmogrified from a loose-cannon cold warrior ("part joke, part sinister mystery," thinks one of his men; "sometimes he sounded like a cracker, other times like a Kennedy") into a full-blown legend: "A soul too wide for the world," observes Sands of his uncle. "He'd written himself large-scale, followed raptly the saga of his own journey, chased his own myth down a maze of tunnels and into the fairyland of children's stories and up a tree of smoke." Toward the end of the novel, when it is all but certain the colonel has died, he is the subject of proliferating local legends; rumors persist that he isn't dead but has installed himself among primitive peoples in the hinterlands of Southeast Asia. As if the filiation with Kurtz were not evident enough, the colonel's loyal and altogether crazy associate, a sergeant named Jimmy Storm, undertakes an arduous quest to find him.
The Quiet American, too, casts a long shadow over Tree of Smoke. Sands not only shares affinities with that novel's titular character, Alden Pyle, in his conviction regarding the rightness of America's mission in Asia, but he has read and given considerable thought to Greene's 1955 novel: "Among the denizens to be twisted beyond recognition" by the war, says Sands (ultimately of himself), was "a young American man who alternately thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American."
Invoking these and other touchstones of the Vietnam narrative, Tree of Smoke carries with it a self-conscious air, as if Johnson has sought to create the definitive novel of the war, one that recapitulates the tropes that have evolved out of nearly half a century of writing and films about the conflict. But the book's depictions, particularly the bleak tale of four-tour veteran James Houston and the soldiers with whom he serves, come perilously close to cliché. The rock-'n'-roll-war ambience that Johnson generates has been well established by Herr and others: the sullen bar girls and ubiquitous pop music blaring from jukeboxes in squalid dives; the supporting cast of halfcocked warriors with names like Screwy Loot and Black Man; the dark exhilaration of combat. There are the requisite American atrocities, including torture and a gang rape. And the drug-addled Houston returns home as an exceedingly recognizable type, the pathological veteran, a time bomb of numbed rage and predation: "He waited for his checks to start. When they started, he bought a Colt .45 revolver, a real sixshooter. He was pretty sure he would eventually shoot the woman living across the way but he felt there was nothing any human power could do about it." Such portrayals, of course, have some basis in reality, but as accomplished as much of the writing in Tree of Smoke is, the novel reads like an orchestration of worn conventions about the war. Johnson's deference to what's gone before suggests why some of his strongest passages occur outside the war zone proper, during the early sections set in the Philippines.
When the action in Tree of Smoke drifts into odd, even bizarre corners, Johnson's originality shines forth. In the wake of the Tet conflagration, a nurse, in search of antibiotics to treat the victims of the airstrikes and of those sure to follow, ventures out to a biomedical center run by an English doctor and his wife. The couple have dedicated themselves to studying rare monkeys, and when the nurse arrives at the partially razed facility, she finds that the creatures have been lovingly diapered by the doctor's wife, who ministers to them as if they were infants grieving for the animals that have just been killed, the doctor's wife tells the nurse, "We had eleven bassinets . . . but they all burned." The half-mad doctor repeatedly mistakes the nurse's blood-pressure gauge for a tape recorder, and only after an excruciating argument does he relinquish their store of medicine. It's an eerie, awful scene, all the more so for being rendered with a nearly deadpan restraint.
The weird spectacle of the babied monkeys in the midst of war shows how Johnson's dreamlike grotesqueries can be vehicles of estimable expressive power. In an agonizing episode such as this one, he momentarily transcends his influences and offers something unsettlingly new in his account of Vietnam. But such moments occur too infrequently in Tree of Smoke. To write with freshness about the war is admittedly a daunting task, given the quality of the literature borne out of that misadventure by such writers as Robert Stone, Tim O'Brien, Philip Caputo, and Herr. (Not to mention heralded films by Kubrick and Coppola.) That a writer as gifted as Johnson fails to deliver more than a sweeping gesture of homage to this tradition is a measure of its strength and intensity, which far exceeds that of all other American wars except, perhaps, the Civil War. In other works, Johnson's aimless loners and afflicted souls testify to the aftershocks of the Vietnam debacle rumbling through our national life. But in his confrontation with the war itself, Johnson shows himself more adept at conveying harrowing effects than at explaining their underlying causes.
James Gibbons is a frequent contributor to Bookforum. He last wrote in these pages on themes in the fiction of Paul Auster.