Denis Johnson goes to war in his 2007 National Book Award–winning novel, Tree of Smoke. And readers experience it not from the safety of a comfortable chair, but instead get drafted and dropped right onto the front lines of battle.
An epic account of the Vietnam War, the novel traces the downfall of four main characters who become crazed by the violence of combat, lose their faith in humanity as well as in God, and find they cannot reenter the world and the lives they have left behind.
Two siblings represent the low-ranking soldiers: William Houston (usually referred to as Bill), who is stationed on a naval ship; and James, his younger brother, who enlists in the army at the age of seventeen. Bill never sees battle on the fields, but he is constantly at odds with the demons inside his head as he moves from one port to another and then finally back home. James, in contrast, volunteers for the front lines and constantly reenlists because he can no longer imagine life without war. James tells his commanding officer that he wants to stay in the war until he dies.
Two other relatives, Colonel Francis Sands and his nephew, William “Skip” Sands, represent the other end of the armed forces. They are both specially trained operatives, working as masterminds who want to create a winning strategy for a war they soon realize cannot be won. The Colonel and Skip are both mavericks. They do things their own way because they believe they are more intelligent than the others around them. In particular, the Colonel appears to have an almost magical power to make people follow him without question.
Circular, abbreviated, riddled with gaps and unanswered questions, the narrative of the novel never allows the reader to know for sure what is happening—exactly the kind of fractured experience that a soldier might have in a war zone.