the observer Sat 20 September 2008
Skip Sands is an undercover CIA agent working for Colonel Francis Xavier Sands, who happens to be his uncle, on a psychological operation to oust the Vietcong in the early Sixties. As Skip is sucked into the war in Vietnam, the question of what the Americans are doing there and at whose bidding becomes ever more confused. It's familiar territory for novelists, but Johnson's vision is all his own. The ambition is astonishing: Tree of Smoke spans three decades and 600 pages, and takes in a complex world of agents and double agents, plots stacked upon subplots and missions dovetailing into one another. It's not always well controlled, and this sprawling, at times incoherent read requires perseverance, but the pay-off, when it finally comes, has a great emotional charge.
the guardian Fri 22 August 2008
In 600-odd pages of dense, lyrical, perplexing prose, Denis Johnson grapples with the Vietnam war and manages not to fix it on paper, but rather to convey the very impossibility of fixing it. "Tree of Smoke" is the codename for a "psyops", a psychological operation rumoured to be being carried out against the Viet Cong by rogue CIA operative Colonel Francis Xavier Sands. Skip Sands is the colonel's nephew, drawn into the company by his uncle and groomed to carry out his lethal bidding unquestioningly. Yet there is nothing but questions. Is the "Tree of Smoke" a real plot, with a Viet Cong soldier turned double agent, or just an insane theory that will bring an end to the colonel's fiefdom in the jungle? The colonel has echoes of Kurtz, as though the figure of a malign, godlike power embodies the truth not only of that war but of the region as well. Johnson evokes the dark entropy of the place brilliantly and has produced a vast, painstaking panorama of 20 years in hell.