3/21/2009

Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke.

I finally finished reading Tree of Smoke last week. Took me long enough (I'm ashamed to admit that I tend to be a pathetically slow reader). Tree of Smoke is the latest novel from Denis Johnson, who is probably my favorite "active" writer. Simply put, I believe ToS to be a great novel, worthy of a significant devotion of time and study; a big part of me felt ready to start reading the book again from the beginning as soon as I had read the last word (I didn't).

While reading, I found myself underlining and dog-earring noteworthy phrases, sentences, and passages throughout the book. Sometimes the selections expressed ideas which piqued my interest but, more often than not, I simply liked the way the words read. Johnson really has a way with language; there is a lot of satisfaction to be found in reading the way he strings words together, even before you've made sense of what it all means.

By the way, the book takes place during the Vietnam War. It's not about the Vietnam War, though. Not specifically, at least. Of course much is said about the war, but ToS isn't really a war story. Arguably. Anyway, the context is important.

---

In fact he was no longer persuaded that blood and revolution made useful tools for altering the concepts in a person's mind. Who said it?--probably Confucius--"I can't beat a sculpture from stone with a sledgehammer; I can't free the soul of a man with violence." Peace was here, peace was now. Peace promised in any other time or place was a lie.

"Get in there. Have intercourse with snakes. Eat human flesh. Learn everything."
"That's pretty broad."

Dickens called human hope a thing "as universal as death."

He busied himself recovering to the third dimension the flattened cardboard boxes.

"It ain't never tomorrow, not in this fucking movie. Never ain't nothing but today."

...the roosters alone on neighboring farms began to scream like humans...

"You got one of them crawly-caterpillar mustaches."

She looked magical...

[A]round them loitered ducks and chickens, huge water buffalo, fawn-colored, starved-looking Brahman cattle, bag-of-bones ponies, all behaving as if war were impossible.

"Be alive."

"We can't win like this. Our young foot soldier this morning phrased it correctly. This shit ain't funny no more. This shit is a mess. This shit has got to stop."

"What's this now--no cigars?"
"Some days they taste a little scummy. You still don't smoke."
"No."
"Don't start." He smoked. "It's a war, Skip."
"I understand."

They threw hand grenades through doorways and blew the arms and legs off ignorant farmers, they rescued puppies from starvation and smuggled them home to Mississippi in their shirts, they burned down whole villages and raped young girls, they stole medicine by the jeepload to save the lives of orphans.

James leaned close and looked down into the sarge's eyes. Eyelashes shellacked together by tears, radiating out in a burst, as in a child's drawing. Beautiful blue eyes. If they were a woman's you couldn't stop looking at them.

"Don't be smart about it. The Holy Spirit's been battering away at the souls of the men in this family for generations. But do you think he's ever made so much as a dent?"
"Yeah--you know what? Maybe the Holy Spirit ain't so holy."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"You been to Oklahoma, ain't you, and Arizona. And that's all."
"What do you mean by saying that?"
"I don't know. Just you need to get around a little more, before you start talking about the Holy Spirit."
"James, do you go to church?"
"No."
"James, do you pray?"
"To who?"
His mother began to weep.
"Woman, let me tell you about the Holy Spirit. He's crazy."

He dreamed a great deal each night. It felt like work. Sleeping made him tired.

"I don't want home leave."
"Don't you want to see home?"
"This war is my home."

"There's no shame in hating, son, not in a war."
"I ain't your son."
"Forgive the presumption."

The rain stopped. Across the road in front of a small house a young woman played peekaboo with a child just walking, who lurched on tiptoes while a slightly older sister danced a solitary improvisation, with sweeping, parallel gestures of her arms, all three of them smiling as if the world went no farther than their happiness.

"I said I wouldn't mind," she said, and they commenced with an awkward kiss.
"Mr. Ben├ęt, do you have any wine?"
"I do. Thank God, I do. And half a fifth of Bushmills."
"Sounds like a party," she said, and laid two fingers lightly on his forearm. Taking the fingers in his hand, he led her to the double-sized bed, where he put to use what he'd learned from Henry Miller's daring passages, from small obscene photographs, dorm-room bull sessions. As in the time in Damulog, they didn't speak. Everything they did was a secret, especially from each other. As she'd said, she didn't mind, and at the very last part she gazed upward at something on the ceiling and cried out. And for an instant he thought, I am James Bond, before he dropped again into gray doubting--Artaud and Cioran, the dog, the weather, the point of it all, waiting for contact with a supposed double agent, the thing he'd been brought here nearly two years ago to accomplish. And it was folly. The wild-card operation and the war itself--folly on folly. And this woman beside him with whom he'd just made love, perspiring like a handball player.

"Then listen to my grandmother. She always told us, Don't scatter your kindness in the forest. Plant them where they'll grow and feed you."

With the side of her foot, she kicked the dirt into the whole, careful to get as little as possible on her sandal. Her husband stared at this operation as if wishing he could grow tiny and throw himself in.

The double had arrived.

Skip watched the road beyond the gate. Not thinking about is mother at all. He supposed he'd think about her later. He couldn't predict the order of the these emotional events, his mother had never died before.

"I know from experience that life is suffering, and that suffering comes from clinging to things that won't stay."

"Uncle Ho won't catch us sleeping! We are absolutely thoroughly prepared for one year ago."

People die when you're thinking of someone else. That's the way of it.

When Sands learned of it he was out behind the villa watching three young boys harry a water buffalo from its rest in a mudhole across the creek. [...] A woman, their mother, someone in authority, appeared from the blossoming bougainvillea above them and tempted the beast with a swatch of greens, and like some geologic fact it developed massively out of the ooze.

And I thought, well, that is a poem. A poem doesn't have to rhyme. It just has to remind you of things and wring them out of you.

The King of Cao Phuc. Psy Ops. Labyrinth. And the Tree of Smoke.

Fest missed his family altogether. And why not?--the old man's death had made him mawkish and philosophical. At first the news had rocked him, but he'd quickly adjusted to a loss so long expected. A few days later sorrow attacked him again as he realized the old man was still dead. As if some part of him had believed his father could die and later one could visit him and talk about it.

"Skip, you're not expected to behave when being questioned by the enemy. We're not the enemy."
Skip said, "'Enemy' is no longer a term I'd use in any case. Ever."

James said, "You took a suicide run."
"Yeah. Sure did."
"I been on a couple runs like that."
"Yeah."
"Hey. You still got your gun? You want me to shoot you?"
The man looked dapper in a tweed sort of sports jacket over a thin beige sweater, pale blue pajama bottoms, and flimsy cloth house slippers. He took a reflective drag on his cigarette. "I left the gun at home," he said.

At the edge of a burning field once he'd found a dead dog with newborn pups at her teats, and he'd taken the minuscule beasts home and tried to nurse them from an eyedropper. That's who he'd been once.

--read until his focus loosened and the lines of text divided into duplicates and floated on the page.

"Unwrinkle your soul, man. You ain't dead."

The men hooted encouragement while he tied his laces and as he climbed the path and until he was out of sight watched him possessively, as if they'd fashioned him and sent him forth.

The letter comprised several--many--handwritten notebook pages folded around a four-by-six snapshot: dozens of people and their wild miscellaneous luggage surrounding a Filipino jeepney with one of its rear wheels removed. Every face smiling, every chest expanded with pride, as if they'd just brought down the vehicle with spears.

"Memories used to come like beestings, ouch, out of nowhere, but now they don't come. But sometimes I get such an urgent, this urgent--feeling."
"I see...Or no, I don't."
"This fist just grabs me by the heart and yanks at me like a dog telling me, 'Come on, come on'--"
"Well, I guess that's, that's--well--understandable, in a way. And--"
"I don't know you well enough to talk like this, do I?"


[No song today, I'm sorry to say. My mind is all muddy with the written word now. Sorry.]

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