The majority of this novel is set in Vietnam: in the jungles, in Saigon, and in small, outlying villages. Much of the rest is set in the Philippines and parts of southeastern Asia, but there are also short visits to U.S. cities—Phoenix and Minneapolis in particular.

Whether or not a war zone, each setting is harsh, hostile, and challenging. Either it is too hot or too humid or too filled with insects and filth. Characters also cannot escape the feeling of foreignness—the feeling that they are somewhere they do not belong. There is never a sense of trust or ease, even when characters return to their homes. The environment is always threatening to them in some way, either physically or psychologically.

Ideas for Group Discussions

1. Take a poll in your classroom as to which students are for and which are against the war in Iraq. Then choose three students from each side and hold a panel discussion about the success or failure of this war. Ask them to do research, coming prepared with statistics and historical backgrounds going back to the beginning of the war. Have topics prepared so you can lead the discussion and allow time for the remaining students in the audience to ask questions.

2. How do the characters Nguyen Hao and Trung Than, two Vietnamese men, compare? What do they have in common? How are they different? Which one do you think is more honorable? Why? Did they get what they deserved in the end?

3. What is the story behind Jimmy Storm? Was he a good man, or was he just a brutal thug? What drove him, in the end, to trek through the jungles in Thailand in search of the Colonel? What do you think about the way he died? Why did he choose that death?

4. Why do you think Skip turned to gunrunning after his uncle died when this seems so contrary to what he stood for before? Did he have any other choice? If you were the author, would you have changed Skip’s fate?

5. What was the role that Kathy Jones played in the novel? How did she change? What was the effect she had on Skip?

6. The author gives no clear reason for Father Thomas Carigan’s death. He was the priest in the Philippines that the German killed with a blow dart. What would you guess was the reason Carigan had to die? Was it necessary?

7. Rick Voss was a rather sinister character. Who do you think killed him, and why was he killed?

8. Why was there an attempt to kill Trung? Wasn’t he going to help the U.S. forces? Why do you think Hao set him up?

9. What is your evaluation of Colonel Sands? Was he a true U.S. patriot, or was he a power-hungry egomaniac? Do you think that by the end of the novel, the Colonel was dead?

10. What was behind Skip’s actions? Was he loyal to his uncle? Was he loyal to his government? He says that his uncle’s spirit entered him. What did he mean by that? How was he like his uncle?

Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Research the history of the Vietnam War. When and why did the United States become involved? How many U.S. soldiers were killed? How long were the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam? What was the final outcome? Write a paper about your findings and present it to your class. Provide a timeline.

2. What was happening in the United States during the Vietnam War in terms of protests? How widespread were the protests? How large were the groups? How do those protests compare to the protests against the war in Iraq? Were there protests against the Vietnam War going on in other parts of the world? Gather as much information as you can and make a presentation to your class using PowerPoint slides.

3. Read another story about a different war, such as Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front about World War I. What are the differences in the wars? Despite these differences, are the reactions of the soldiers in both wars similar? Write a report and share your findings with your class.

4. Do you see any similarities between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War? What are they? How do the wars differ? Compare the war strategies as best you can, as well as the number of U.S. casualties and the costs of each war.

5. There are many different letters presented in this novel. How would you have written them? Write the following letters, using your imagination, your emotions, and your beliefs: one letter from Skip to his mother, one from Skip’s mother to Skip, one from Kathy to Skip, and one from Skip to Kathy. Feel free to use any topics and any time periods or settings. Just stay fairly true to the characters of the book.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

Jim Lewis, writing a review for the New York Times, said Johnson reminds him of a cross between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Edgar Allan Poe, two great literary masters. Although Tree of Smoke is very long, Johnson is an excellent storyteller who knows how to keep his readers involved and turning the pages even though the weight of the book (both physically and psychologically) can be exhausting. The book is also daunting because Johnson constantly flips back and forth among characters, taking the narrative to Vietnam, then to the Philippines, back to the States, and then into the jungles of Southeast Asia within twenty pages, confusing readers until there is nothing left to do but resign to Johnson’s sense of time and place, trusting that sooner or later things will make sense, though they seldom do. And that seems to be the author’s point. Like his war-ravaged characters who struggle with making sense of the world, readers too must struggle. Driving home that point, Johnson has titled his chapters according to specific years (1963 through 1983), but there are passages in the individual chapters that do not match the year. There are also gaps of information, questions that never are answered, and characters who appear and then disappear without readers ever knowing what happened to them. Readers might hope that one of the characters, somewhere in this story, could find peace and a little happiness, but as Lewis said in his New York Times review, the story just keeps getting sadder.

Tyrone Beason, writing a review for the Seattle Times, likened the book to a reenactment of the war in Iraq, as the character Skip wonders how the United States, with all its military power, could be in the position of actually losing a war. Beason also pointed out that Tree of Smoke demonstrates that it is the soldiers on the front lines who must fight and suffer all the consequences of war. Beason likened some of the scenes in Johnson’s book to those of Dante’s portraits of hell.

Nathan Ihara, writing for the Los Angeles Weekly, claimed that Johnson masterfully captures human suffering better than any other writer because Johnson truly understands it. Although some critics have bemoaned yet another novel about the Vietnam War, Ihara found Johnson’s book unique in that he is able to present the war in sacred tones, interpreting it through lessons his characters learned from the Bible.

Related Titles / Adaptations

For a straight, general history of the Vietnam War, look to Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (1997). If you want a more personalized actual account, try Frederick Downs’ memoir The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War (1993). For a different take, Mark A. Ashwill’s Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at the Crossroads (2004) will provide information about the reconstruction of this war-torn country and culture. Robert Peterson provides a very personal account—similar to how some of the characters are presented in Johnson’s novel—in his book Rites of Passage: Odyssey of a Grunt (2001). Peterson takes readers into battle and inside his head as he grows up on the battlefield of Vietnam.

Two books worth reading are mentioned in Johnson’s novel. The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene is a fictional account of a naive U.S. citizen who goes to Southeast Asia searching for ways to spread democracy but ends up having the opposite effect. The Ugly American (1958) by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, an eye-opening account that is still relevant today, is about the lack of knowledge U.S. citizens and policy makers have about Asian politics and culture.

Other novels that deal with war include Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 classic All Quiet on the Western Front, about a young man’s experience during World War I; Robert Stone’s 1974 National Book Award–winning Dog Soldiers, which is similar in themes to Johnson’s novel; and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), a satirical account of World War II. For a slightly different take on war, there is the story of Japanese people who suffered hardships after they were interred in Canada during World War II, as recounted in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1981); and an award-winning collection of short stories about Vietnamese people written by Robert Olen Butler, called A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain (1992).

Born on the Fourth of July, an autobiography by Ron Kovic, was published in 1974 and later adapted, in 1989, into an Academy Award–winning movie starring Tom Cruise. This is the story of Kovic’s journey from Vietnam soldier to antiwar protester.

For Further Reference

Ignatius, David. 2007. Casualties of war: An epic story of soldiers and intelligence agents in the Vietnam War. Washington Post, September 16, p. BW 1. A long, detailed review of Johnson’s novel.

Lewis, Jim. 2007. The revelator. New York Times Book Review, September 2, p. 1. Lewis writes a positive review, calling Tree of Smoke a masterpiece.

Lippens, Nate. 2007. Review of Tree of smoke. The Stranger 17 (7): 44. An enthusiastic review of Johnson’s novel.

Thompson, Bob. 2007. Johnson’s “Tree of smoke” wins National Book Award. Washington Post, November 15, p. C 1. A short review of and information about Tree of Smoke and the other winners of this award in 2007.

Ulin, David L. 2007. Welcome to the jungle. Los Angeles Times, September 2, p. R 1. A comprehensive review of Johnson’s novel.

Zipp, Yvonne. 2007. Johnson crafts a Vietnam epic for the ages. Christian Science Monitor, September 14, p. 12. Another positive review of Tree of Smoke. Zipp praises the novel’s sense of originality despite its use of standard war tropes.

Tree of Smoke

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Mostly known for his collection of short stories Jesus’ Son (1992), author and journalist Denis Johnson writes well of drug addicts, drifters, and delinquents struggling to keep themselves from jail or complete destitution, yet he also looks for the visionary potential of such deprivations. With Tree of Smoke, his first full-length novel in nine years, Johnson blends together multiple story lines of the Vietnam War and leaves it up to the reader to make connections between them. The main strand concerns the misadventures of a deluded young American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent. As Johnson ironically associates him with Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955), William “Skip” Sands...

(The entire section is 1851 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 22 (August 1, 2007): 8.

Esquire 148, no. 3 (September, 2007): 80.

Harper’s Magazine 315 (October, 2007): 110-118.

Library Journal 132, no. 13 (August 1, 2007): 69-70.

New Criterion 26, no. 3 (November, 2007): 86-87.

The New York Times 156 (August 31, 2007): E25-E28.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (September 2, 2007): 1-8.

Publishers Weekly 247, no. 26 (June 25, 2007): 30.