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Fiction: Johnson crafts a Vietnam epic for the ages

Denis Johnson's gripping 'Tree of Smoke' delves into the CIA's operations during the 1960s.

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Novels about the Vietnam War aren't formulaic, per se, but they tend to have a few things in common. Ingredients usually include at least three of the following: despair, muscular writing, gonzo dialogue, thermometer-melting weather, copious amounts of blood, sweat, and alcohol, and at least one evocation of "Apocalypse Now." What makes "Tree of Smoke," the new novel by Denis Johnson ("Jesus' Son"), so unusual is that it adheres to the obligatory shopping list without ever feeling less than original.

The ostensible hero is Skip Sands, a newly minted Central Intelligence Agency agent who's been posted to the Philippines and Vietnam, where he's in the employ of his legendary uncle, "the Colonel," a Hawaiian-shirt-clad puppet master who likes pontificating almost as much as he does drinking.

"Tree of Smoke" is a big book, both in terms of heft and ideas. It helps if a reader cares as much about military hardware as carefully constructed sentences. There are plenty of both piled up among the spies, soldiers, double agents, and missionary's widows roaming the novel's humid, grief-riddled pages. The novel goes on 10 years and 100 pages longer than I personally needed to get across its central message – one that has probably best been summed up by the great William Goldman in "The Princess Bride": "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." Grade: B+


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