Wednesday, March 19, 2008
So Many Bright Flowering Young Men
It’s not hard to see why Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke would be at least superficially an ideal candidate for all sorts of lionizing book awards and best-of-year rigamarole. It’s weighty, comes from a name author very conspicuously “branching out,” and tackles a theme (Vietnam) with tons of trendy potential since it’s been so lately overlooked during our current clusterfuck in Iraq. I’m surprised the thing doesn’t already have it’s own Stuff White People Like entry.
As a novel, TOS is involving but unspectacular. Johnson prods themes of otherness and moral guilt so relentlessly he doesn’t just invite the influence of Greene and Conrad, he practically screams it out loud, something I was doing to myself wrt Greene even before a character specifically mentions The Quiet American. To his credit, I think Johnson does a brilliant thing by making the chaotic, largely unsatisfying morass of his plot mirror that of the war itself. If something as spectacular and revolutionary as certain plans suggest really did go down, it would make for a far more thrilling read, I’m sure, but the confusion and fuckery that actually ensues feels far more true to life.
Johnson also has some really worthwhile things to say about myth as well as youthful ennui, the latter of which I’m guessing shouldn’t be too surprising to those who’ve read Jesus’ Son (I haven’t, which is why I’m only guessing). True enough, the scenes depicting the last high school days of a soon-to-enlist kid named James are the novel’s most skillfully drawn, admirably conveying that familiar mixture of nihilism and big dreams that stirs inside so many frustrated young men. For the most part, however, Johnson’s style is what lets him down. He’s just not a terribly distinctive writer, and very rarely in the course of 600+ pages did I catch myself on a particular sentence or description and felt compelled to savor it. He also didn’t seem to know what to do with certain characters, introducing a Dennis Hopper type rather carefully early on and then turning him loose to damn near ruin the novel’s ending.