There are plenty of Vietnam memoirs and films but surprisingly few novels about the war, and none of them could be called exceptional or definitive. In his first full-length novel for nine years, Denis Johnson sets out to fill the gap with a lengthy work that stretches from 1963 to 1973 with a coda in 1983, also takes in the Philippines, Japan, Hawaii, Thailand and Malaysia, and has a suitably sizeable and international cast.
The implicit aim is to do for the conflict what Thomas Pynchon’s monstrous Gravity’s Rainbow did for the Second World War, yet what seems to haunt Tree of Smoke is a far more slender offering: Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, still pre-eminent in Vietnam fiction, although it dates from the Fifties when France was the imperial power under siege. Johnson too has a protagonist, Skip Sands, who is an American spy, and references to Greene’s novel pop up regularly.
Adding to the novel’s derivative feel is the influence of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (already adapted to Vietnam in the film Apocalypse Now). Skip owes his job to his uncle, a veteran CIA operative. Though ebullient and gregarious, Colonel Sands resembles Conrad’s Kurtz in that his eccentricities – writing