Denis Johnson

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Denis Johnson

Postcard From The Edge
War, religion and myth curl the same branch in Vietnam War-era opus

Denis Johnson’s ?rst full-length novel in nine years—and what a full length at 600-plus pages—tunes itself to the distant soundtrack of the ‘60s and spans 20 years in the lives of two young enlisted men and two CIA operatives. It’s a tense, seductive hall of mirrors that will transport readers to the edge of morality and reality.

Though foremost a story about Skip Sands, the novel opens unexpectedly after JFK’s assassination, with a young GI named Bill Houston shooting a monkey in the Philippine jungle. Johnson’s spare but potent description renders the event unforgettable and sets the tone for the entire book:

"As he held the animal in his hands, its heart stopped beating. He gave it a shake, but he knew it was useless. He felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was eighteen years old."

The narrative ?ickers from this point to various settings and distinctive characters. Joining Bill is his brother James, who naively enters the army at 17 with a forged birth certificate. Both men are coarse, hardened, difficult. And we meet Skip, a likeable third-year CIA operative from Kansas who, at the start, “considered both the Agency and his country to be glorious.”

Waiting for the ?rst assignment from his uncle, Colonel Sands, Skip keeps anxiety at bay by focusing on his primary goal: the defeat of communism. The colonel, in turn, is a dynamic but protean leader described as “part joke, part sinister mystery,” and he’s utterly obsessed with myth as the strategic element of psychological warfare. “War is ninety percent myth anyway, isn’t it?” he asserts. Arguably, it’s Johnson’s way of underscoring his own book’s proposition. “In order to prosecute our own wars,” the colonel continues, “we raise them to the level of human sacri?ce, don’t we, and we constantly invoke our God. It’s got to be about something bigger, or we’d all turn deserter.”

It’s difficult not to mark parallels with today’s “war on terror,” but these four narrative hubs all offer disparate albeit linked portraits—men on the front lines who feel wonderful only in the midst of violence and pain because it’s the only time they feel alive; men waiting on the sideline, strategizing and chasing ideals. The storylines also illuminate the irony of war, where soldiers kill civilians but rescue puppies; rape girls but nick medicine for orphans. Some, like Bill and James, see simple lines: “the enemy were killers, they themselves were just boys, and they were dead.” Others, like Skip and the colonel, ?nd war is inside them. War, frighteningly, is their religion.

Johnson does not limit the omniscient narration to these four. The book gathers momentum in scenes portraying mothers, other soldiers and Vietcong. And though the narrator sometimes explains context, generally a reader must be alert to the trail of who’s who and what’s what in this broad yet contained landscape where society’s rules have been upturned.

It’s Johnson’s impressive prose legerdemain—often displayed in brisk, untagged dialogue—that allows this ambitious narrative to avoid muddling its clarity or dampening its suspense.

In many ways the book achieves the hypnotic quality of the poetic sestina, where the same elements rhythmically shift and appear anew—from vampires and gun-running to polygraphs and Lucky Strikes. Historical detail is subtly and artfully infused, never polemic: Skip comes to grips with loss while staring at a magazine cover of black Olympians with ?sts raised. And stunning descriptions offer the reader oases from the hum of brutality and loneliness, whether in an observation of “a parallelogram of shade,” or Skip noting of his lover that “she wasn’t, herself, beautiful. Her moments were beautiful.”

Like Skip during the colonel’s covert Psychological Operations maneuver, prepare to be “surrounded, assailed, inhabited by … serpentine imagery” in this hauntingly original novel. Tree of Smoke captures the full spectrum of war. At the same time, it examines every man’s eternal quest to escape while secretly longing to be discovered. As the line between spy, friend, criminal and enemy becomes sheer, readers will follow Johnson’s twisting trail to the edge of reality, “right where it turns into a dream.”