[This comically disproportionate review was to appear in issue 55 of Resonance Magazine, but due to publication crises that seem totally prophetic in retrospect the magazine folded instead. You can download exceedingly stylish .pdfs of the last two issues here.]

Tree of Smoke (FSG, 2007)
by Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke is as much about patience as it is about war, which seems fitting for a 624-page novel of attrition divided into years instead of chapters. Suspending a handful of characters in Vietnam and environs through the 1970s and crossing their destinies now and again with the cynical mastery of a grizzled general, Denis Johnson imposes a historical framework on his trademark themes of dependence and dispossession. The book could be shorter, not only for a few inscrutable subplots and a cumbersome epilogue, but also for tone’s sake: Johnson is best when he can be aloofly omniscient, summing up people and places in a few quick, devastating truths, and the attention span demanded by a work of this scope robs something from his trenchancy. (To wit, the most memorable characters in Smoke are the ones he treats most cruelly—particularly small-town soldier Bill Houston and his spookily endearing little brother James, who would fit seamlessly in Johnson’s best-known story collection, Jesus’ Son.) Still, he earns the space between each unnervingly canny distillation of the human condition, and narrates with enough savage, unflinching profundity to ensure that Tree of Smoke will be more rewarding than its inevitable film adaptation.