Friday, October 10, 2008

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

A long, complex story of war, deceit, and occasional honor in Vietnam and beyond. The tale features William "Skip" Sands, who joins the CIA and comes under the wing of his uncle, known far and wide simply as "the Colonel". Skip is assigned to work on a massive number of index cards, cataloging intelligence from "everywhere". This reasonably safe task leads to his involvement in the murder of a priest and to the periphery of a program dubbed "Tree of Smoke" by his uncle. The Colonel, with the help of an aide, wrote an article about the way intelligence is used - how raw intelligence is modified as it goes up the chain of command and modified further on its way down, in the form of directives, for political purposes. The article is considered traitorous and the Colonel becomes a target.

The story also involves two brothers, Bill and James, from Arizona, both of whom enlist and have very different experiences. The two both find, however, that truth is the first casualty in war, and that any soldier may be sacrificed for the sake of appearances, essentially for political reasons.

Skip, Bill, and James all encounter others in that dark jungle, Skip most importantly, perhaps, meeting and falling in love with the wife of the dead priest. The layers of intrigue, lies, and deceit change Skip from a young man wanting to do the right thing to a seasoned middle-aged man who believes he lost his core years ago.

It's a strange sort of morality play, and one that I did not fully comprehend on my way through it. I listened to the tale on my car CD player and occasionally was distracted from it and missed important connections. If I had instead read the book I could have gone back to check those passages. However, it is unlikely I would have read a book about Vietnam, a large book, any time soon. I think I would have put it down again and again and it would have been 2010 before I finished it.

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