Tree of Smoke is a 2007 novel by Denis Johnson. It won the National Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The book is set in Vietnam during the war, with some scenes taking place in adjoining countries and in the United States.
This book was one of the first books in a while that I just sat down and read and wanted to keep reading. It is a long book (600 pages), but I found the action and dialogue intriguing. The plot of the books follows Skip Sands, a young CIA officer who follows the charismatic lead of his uncle, Colonel Francis Sands, an older CIA officer who is brilliant but perhaps unstable, and seems to have gone rogue. In a parallel plot, it follows James Houston and his brother Bill Houston, young men from Arizona that join the military to escape poverty. A host of subsidiary characters round out the book.
As could be ascertained from winning the National Book Award, and being a finalist for a Pulitzer, this book was critically well received. It also had blurbs from Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth. Although I have found a few dissenting opinions, it seems that quite a few people consider it a masterpiece.
Although I enjoyed the book, I can't quite say why I enjoyed it, or why it should be considered a great work. While set in the Vietnam War, I am not sure that this is a work about the Vietnam War. While it does have social and political content, I don't see it as a tract. It is certainly not heavy-handed propaganda about American imperialism or the like. The book uses religious imagery and symbolism, dabbles in psychology and philosophy and myth, and covers fifty years of American history. But I am not sure it is about any of those things. Many of the conversations and incidents in the book seem to go nowhere in particular. It uses naturalistic dialog and conversations, as well as long descriptions of characters eating, drinking and smoking. As befits a book about Vietnam, some scenes are violent and depressing, while others are seemingly banal. It is possible that the entire work is a gigantic shaggy dog story. In some ways, with its combination of espionage, naturalistic depictions of every day activities, and inconclusive plot, it reminds me of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84.
I found this book fascinating and could read hundreds of pages of it at a sitting. Although myself (and others) have found it a book of interesting qualities, I can't quite explain why.