Why did the U.S. bother itself in Vietnam? Tens of thousands of Americans dead, ten times as many Vietnamese, the great waste of life and money and time, for what? To say that it was to stem the tide of Communism sounds right in a high school history sort of way, and the protagonist of Tree of Smoke, CIA op William "Skip" Sands, sure seems keen on beating Communism. But the line between the ideology and the great material fact of war seems to have a gap in it somewhere, not at all like the great war of the previous generation. Tree of Smoke is a novel that presents the Vietnam War as a kind of immense fever dream, not just in the confusion of the jungle, but in the bungled ethos of the war itself.
At first, Tree of Smoke seems like a loving homage to Graham Greene. Kathy Jones, a Canadian missionary, makes the allusion explicit by comparing Skip, masquerading in the Philippines as a corporate stooge for Del Monte, to the Quiet American. Skip bristles at the comparison, his motives are not so rigid and his methods, he'd like to think, not so brash. Skip is part of CIA's Psy Ops--psychological operations, that is--under the tutelage of his uncle, Colonel F. X. Sands.
The Colonel is a living legend, a former POW and war hero who has developed unconventional ideas about how to wage war. "War is ninety percent myth anyway, isn't it?" he says. "In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to the level of human sacrifice, don't we, and we constantly invoke our God. It's got to be about something bigger than dying, or we'd all turn deserter." The Colonel advocates complete immersion into local culture and turning myth, "the other fellow's gods," into a psychological tool. He also advocates a philosophical separation from the CIA chain of command, with predictably problematic results. For the Colonel, myth and mystery, enemies of clarity, are the only way to wage war:
He woke from an hour's nap and went to the veranda to drink hot, strong coffee less reviving than his thrilling vertigo before the vista of his mistakes, all the wrongness he'd wandered into on the tails of his uncle, the aboriginal Man of Action. Neanderthal, had been Rick Voss's term. Mr. Tho came out with a burning mosquito coil in a dish and set it on the arm of the opposite chair, and there you are, simplicity itself, the ember of the foul-smelling incense bead, orange bead tunneling along its spiral path toward extinction and nonentity. He felt surrounded, assailed, inhabited by such serpentine imagery--the tunnels, Project Labyrinth, the curling catacombs of the human ear... But over all loomed the central and quite different image: the Tree of Smoke. Yes, his uncle meant to unfold himself like a dark wraith and take on the whole Intelligence service, the very way of it, subvert its unturnable tides. Or assault it on the handball court.
The Greene pastiche halts early on; the whiskey priest-figure, a Catholic gun-runner for the Communists, is murdered by a blowgun. If Skip is assigned to keep tabs on the priest, who kills him and why? Another faction of the CIA? The Filipinos? Like Greene, Johnson's warriors are self-defeating, but it's not at all clear that what happens is a mistake rather than a grand mystery. Johnson's language, with its touches of Beatnik mysticism and high prophecy, are far from Greene's deflating realism.
All of that is prologue. When the action moves to Vietnam, things get worse and worse. The project that the Colonel has Sands working on--cultivating a double agent to infiltrate the North Vietnamese--never really gets off the ground, which is impressive in a book that stretches to 700 pages. It blows up, the Colonel dies under mysterious circumstances, but becomes a kind of myth himself, rumored to have let himself be captured in order to promulgate false info to the Viet Cong. What info? Does it matter? As one character says, "I'd venture the truth is in the legend." In a different book, that would be a platitude.
Tree of Smoke fills out its considerable bulk with several minor characters. Besides the Colonel, Skip, and Kathy Jones, there's Bill and James Houston, a pair of down-and-out Arizona brothers who bring the desolation of their lives to the jungle and then bring the madness of the jungle back to Arizona. Both are petty criminals, frightened children, irresponsible addicts, and while Tree of Smoke doesn't argue that Vietnam ruined them--they were pretty fucked up in the first place--it does want us to see that the war provides no better way. Johnson, with his loving attention toward junkies and lowlifes, refuses to give us a Vietnam novel without the grunts. Their connection to the main narrative is tenuous, but they remind us that the Colonel's spooky mythologizing engenders true violence. But neither does Johnson ignore the Vietnamese: several locals, all of whom are mixed up with the Colonel's double agent scheme, get their turn in the narrative. And while not all of these are worthwhile (I didn't need to linger so long with the mysterious German assassin, who returns to muse about his Nazi father), the scope of the novel mimics the way the war grows and spins out of control.
I can't tell you what I'd give to be able to write like Johnson. He's one of those rare writers whose every word seems perfectly considered. Every now and then, out of the morass of war, a perfect phrase emerges: A bowling ball "traveling away like a son, beyond hope of influence." James' fear that a man caught by an exploding grenade would "splash around him like paint." A corpse is described--horribly, but memorably--with its "rag of brain." And the dialogue zips, right at the edge of sense, as really good dialogue often does. It's hard to find a book of this immensity where the writing seems so precise and sharp, especially one whose big theme is confusion and mystery.