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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm a Ford Tempo, You're a Maserati

Kathleen Edwards isn’t blessed with a great voice, but she uses each of its limitations to her advantage. When quiet, her conversational tones are heartbreakingly human and intimate – you almost forget she’s even singing since it sounds so much more like confiding. When she belts, however, it’s even better. The way her rounded pipes flatten and swallow up chunks of words should be a detriment, but it only makes her working-class chronicles more heroic. No one would accuse Springsteen of being Van Morrison either. Crucially, and also in keeping with the Boss, Edwards’ words are so damn good that you end up straining to catch every last one, pulling you deeper into the music, something that wouldn’t happen as easily if she enunciated more clearly.

Something plainly poignant or comically hard-bitten or just wondrously quotable jumps out of almost every song on Asking for Flowers, the early album of the year candidate that’ll shortly send me scurrying back to Edwards’ debut (which I was thought was half-brilliant but kinda fell off at the back end) and her sophomore effort (which I missed entirely). “If you look at other girls / working out in the nighttime / I don’t mind but I don’t want to know.” “You tell me that you’re tired / ten years I’ve been working nights.” “Love is the harder times / take it from me.” All of the hilarious “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory,” and there’s plenty of great stuff in “Alicia Ross” and “Oil Man’s War” that needn’t be taken out of context.