Denis Johnson
Tree of Smoke.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 624 pages, $27

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke ought to be an awful book. It’s about the Vietnam War, so the reader can’t help but expect present-day Iraq dressed up in jungle camouflage. One character, the CIA veteran Francis Xavier Sands (“The Colonel”), sounds a little too Kurtzy for comfort, and his nephew Skip—a trainee spook whose very name evokes “Dennis the Menace” naiveté—must be a cardboard stand-in for the blundering idealism so often imputed to American foreign policy. Then there’s the question of length. Does Johnson need a more exacting editor, or is this one of those “ambitious” books we hear so much about?

Dead wrong on all counts. Against the odds, Tree of Smoke is tremendous, sui generis, and utterly engrossing....

 

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