Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

This 2007 work is a difficult novel to digest. I was drawn to it because it is about the Vietnam War and has received extensive praise. But I find that it is not my kind of novel. It is not about people, but about experiences. And while these are brilliantly described experiences, they are disconnected. For one thing, we jump back and forth between the experiences of the two male characters. For another, we jump ahead continually in time.

The first character is Skip Sands, part of a nebulous CIA operation and nephew of the legendary Colonel Sands, an Edward Lansdale type of character. The second is James Houston, an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and his brother Bill. In both these relationships, Skip and James admire their family counterparts and earn our sympathy and identification, but both also end up on the wrong side of the law. This novel is about why that happens, but their sad fates also frustrate the reader’s need to identify with these characters.

In other words, the message of this novel is the harm that this war did to young men, and by implication to society at large. Not simply because of the reason the U.S. forces were in Vietnam, but because of their actions once there. And in this novel, these actions are quite disorganized. Which has resulted, for me, in a disorganized novel. I ended up reading a novel about those actions rather than a novel about the evolution of these characters. That is, both Skip and James are completely different people at the end of this novel, and it is not clear how or why they changed. Yes, the war, in general, caused it, but the reader does not experience the internal change in each one, only the disorganized experiences that seem to have prompted it.

Moreover, those experiences were, for me, too unpleasant, as well as too disconnected, to draw me into this novel. Yes, the author is showing that they were unpleasant in order to make his point. But they reflect too much for me the modern novelists’ detachment from his characters—resorting to a brilliant objectivity that, for me, inserts a barrier between myself and the characters I am reading about. And I acknowledge that for some this is a positive result. They admire such objectivity. But I wonder if it is because they do not approach the reality they describe with social, spiritual, or moral standards.

B. R. Myers writes a devastating review in The Atlantic, which makes me more comfortable in my reaction, but that review concentrates on Johnson’s writing style more than on its content. Whereas, I was more impressed by the vividness of the style that so often put me in the actual scene. I sensed that the specifics meant that Johnson himself had been to Vietnam and witnessed/experienced that life and that landscape. Which seems to say that, for me, the vividness of the style overwhelmed Myers’ critique of the felicities of style.

Geoff Dyer in The Guardian also sums up this novel: “Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”

That’s me, caught up in each adventure, that is, until it seemed to go nowhere. Thus, the title, Tree of Smoke, the name of a CIA project, is never explored. And the project is as amorphous as the rest of these disconnected events. Speaking of disconnections, the novel ends with Kathy, a nurse with whom Skip has a brief affair—she appears sporadically, unlinked to other events, throughout the novel—giving a speaking engagement in St. Paul years later. And it is she who expresses the novel’s final line: “All will be saved. All will be saved.” Huh? That upbeat seems to come from nowhere.

Perhaps my fascination with the vivid events of this novel, combined with a struggle to get through it, is best captured by David Ignatius in The Washington Post: “This novel makes large demands on the reader: to submit to its length, to its disorienting language and structure, to the elusive and shattering experience of its characters, and finally to its sheer ambition to be definitive, an encompassing novel for the Vietnam generation. It is a presumptuous book, in other words, and you may resist for the first several hundred pages. But it will grab you eventually, and gets inside your head like the war it is describing — mystifying, horrifying, mesmerizing.”

Yes, this novel jumps around too much for me. From Bill to Skip, from Bill to James, from Skip to the colonel’s lieutenants, and then to Kathy. Also, from year to year, and then to a decade later. All is disconnected. How does Skip get blamed for the colonel’s failed plans? Why does he then turn criminal? Why does James also turn criminal after he comes home to his brother? Why does Kathy lose her faith in God but not in man? I suggest the Vietnam War is too simple an explanation for all this. Especially for a novel that does not get inside its characters.

Johnson’s favorite milieu appears to be the underside of life, whether in the military or back home. And Vietnam offers a fine opportunity to enter that world, both the American world of an ineffectual CIA or military mission and the Vietnam world’s interchangeable allegiances. One should note that there is no military action here for a war novel, no actual spy missions for its espionage atmosphere, only talk and planning and new talk and new planning, a year later, to new off-screen developments. There are also long journeys through nature, but no climactic revelations, no missions accomplished. There are only mysterious assassins, mysterious loners, and the mysterious Vietnamese culture.

Matterhorn remains my favorite novel about the Vietnam War. We follow our soldiers actually fighting. They have a mission. And they succeed or they fail. And react accordingly. (January, 2017)

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

This 2010 work is a magnificent novel, the best war novel I have read in decades. It is equal to the best of Mailer and Jones. It is the novel of Vietnam. It reportedly took the author 30 years to write this novel—far longer, that is, than it took Hemingway to write his about World War I. This was undoubtedly because of the scope of this novel; and the result, for me, surpasses even A Farewell to Arms, since that novel was more concerned with the experience of one soldier. In fact, this novel surpasses, for me, even Mailer and Jones, because of its emphasis on man’s humanity,

Matterhorn tells here the experience of a Marine company, Bravo Company, and a second lieutenant and platoon leader Waino Mellas. Indeed, it comprises in the adventures of this one company a capsule of the entire Vietnamese war. Even while author Marlantes reduced his manuscript from 1,600 pages to about 600, he narrowed in on representative exploits. And so, we first meet Bravo Company out on patrol, not knowing where the enemy is or when and how it might attack. We immediately grasp the uncertainty, the fear, the silence, the darkness, and the moral and physical discomfort of fighting in a strange land.

This is also the story of many men in Bravo Company. Of First Lieutenant Fitch, in charge of the company; of Second Lieutenant Ted Hawke, all of 22, second in command; of second lieutenants Mellas, Goodwin and Kendall, in charge of its three platoons; of its squad leaders, corporals Connolly, Fisher, Jacobs, Jancowitz, and Jackson; of Corporal Mallory who has mysterious headaches that no one can diagnose; of Sergeant Cassidy, the artillery gunner, who antagonizes the blacks; of Private Vancouver who always wants to be on point, the most dangerous assignment; of Private Arran and his scout dog Pat; of privates China and Henry, black Marines who duel to become the leader of mutinous blacks; and finally of the devious and ambitious battalion officers, Lt. Colonel Simpson and Major Blakely, whose mission is to kill NVAs, North Vietnamese Army regulars, rather than to occupy Vietnamese territory.

Bringing strategic perspective to the extensive field action are Simpson and Blakely, back at headquarters, who push Bravo in order to earn promotions for themselves, and who realize the way to do so is to probe for and kill those enemy troops. But then comes an irrational decision from Saigon that is symptomatic of the military bungling to come. After Bravo has established defensive positions atop Matterhorn Mountain, it is ordered to abandon them, because headquarters generals want to impress visiting politicians by shifting troops to a distant attack at Cam Lo.

Bravo’s new mission is to trek through the jungle in the novel’s first dramatic sequence. It is a powerful one, as men we have met begin to die, sometimes horribly, such as from a malarial disease or a mauling by a tiger at night. The new orders prompt Bravo to probe bamboo forests and elephant grass, then plow through river canyons and climb high cliffs, all the time being told to exaggerate body counts as its soldiers search for an NVA ammunition dump whose position is a vague point on a map. And, after they succeed, their gung-ho commanders send these exhausted men on another forced march, this time to establish an artillery outpost on a distant hill.

Thus, Bravo confronts a two-week hike, the first half on short rations and the second half with both no food and no sleep, all the while headquarters demanding that they move faster. And their horror is compounded by carrying the decaying body killed by that tiger, plus black soldiers planning to revolt against the discrimination they feel.

This is where this novel begins to dig deeper than mere warfare. Because we grow to understand the field officers’ loyalty to the men of their company, and the enlisted men’s loyalty to each other and to their mission. We realize that this novel is about more than war, about more than the trauma of Vietnam. It is about the impact on these human beings of fighting in a strange world in which the enemy lurks behind every leaf, or is hidden in the night. It is about the politics of getting along with one’s superiors, which Fitch and Mellas learn to do but not Hawke—and which the black Marines also fail to do. And, for all of them, it is about the dream of home.

The humanizing of Mellas continues as he volunteers for a dangerous patrol before leaving the artillery outpost. He wounds an NVA, only to feel guilt because he cannot kill the enemy soldier, instead leaving him to suffer. Complexity increases when they return to headquarters, and the black soldiers force the transfer of a belligerent Cassidy for his own safety, then nearly riot in a movie theatre. Also, Mallory, the black private, is back with his headaches; and he attacks, in frustration, a doctor who cannot cure him.

Mellas’ reaction to headquarters life includes getting drunk with his fellow officers, all trying to forget that new orders will again send them into the bush. And when it comes, they are ordered to helicopter out to save a reconnaissance team outnumbered by the NVA. The initial mission succeeds, but Simpson and Blakely need more NVA dead, and so order Bravo to attack Helicopter Hill and Matterhorn. And the irony, of course, is that the US had earlier abandoned these hills after building strong defenses there.

Despite a lack of surprise, of superior numbers, of artillery support, the lieutenant colonel orders the attack, thinking that if Bravo gets into trouble, it will be re-enforced and the NVA body count will rise. The result is the major and climactic two-part battle of the novel, a battle in which many of the Marines are killed, Marines whom both Mellas and we the readers have come to know. It is a painful reading experience, but perhaps not truly moving because it is described so precisely, so clinically.

In the first phase, Mellas betrays mixed motivations, as he first charges out of a safe position to join Bravo in its attack on Helicopter Hill, and then bargains for a bronze star recommendation if he can save Pollini, a wounded private. But in trying to save him, he fires his rifle over Pollini’s head and later thinks he might have killed this man by accident. The sense of guilt hangs over him a long while after the hill is taken.

But with 13 US troops dead and 40 wounded, and only 10 NVA killed, the colonel needs more NVA bodies. So he orders an attack on Matterhorn itself, not knowing how many enemy troops are there, and knowing fog prevents US supplies coming in or the wounded being evacuated. After the attack fails, supplies do arrive and some are evacuated, but the fog returns, and only 97 men are left to continue the fight.

That night, the Marines are surrounded, and Mellas thinks he is going to die. This prompts him to think of God and death and fate, and the irony of fate. “He was the butt of a cruel joke. God had given him life and must have laughed as Mellas used it to kill Pollini, to get a piece of ribbon to show proof of his worth. And it was his worth that was the joke.” Later: “He cursed God directly for the savage joke that had been played on him. And in that cursing Mellas for the first time really talked with his God.”

Overall, the NVA is moving three regiments up three valleys from Laos into South Vietnam. A weakened Bravo Company, low on water and ammunition, is the only US force in its way. Fog continues to prevent supplies and re-enforcements, and relief companies are a two-day hike away. A discussion of racism at this point seems meant to mirror race relations back home, to underline the sacrifices of blacks in Vietnam, to remind the reader of the enemy being of another race, and finally to stress the humanity of everyone that is fighting in Vietnam. These intervals give texture to the Vietnam war but also humanity to the novel’s characters. Even Simpson and Blakely, in fact, are given their moments of self-knowledge, of humanity.

At this point, the puppet strings of author Marlantes are faintly visible. For Hawke, Bravo’s former executive officer now back at headquarters, organizes supplies, pleads for pilots, and joins a helicopter relief of his old company, bringing in 40 men and new ammo. Yet his effort is presented so naturally, and he is so sincere, that it works.

Bravo is ordered to attack Matterhorn with these re-enforcements in order to, in the colonel’s eyes, restore company pride. But things still go wrong. The fog clears, but US planes miss their target. Nevertheless, Mellas stands, shaking, and walks up hill toward enemy lines. Others follow, surprising him with their respect of his leadership. But as he is pinned down and then wounded twice, Mellas decides that the NVA are never going to quit fighting, and he sees no sense in their attacking and killing each other. It is the novel’s one direct anti-Vietnam statement.

As Mellas, blind in one eye, awaits medical evacuation, he decides that by killing the enemy, who have people back home who care for them, he has participated in evil, and that without such caring there would be no evil. “The jungle wasn’t evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man has added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares.” It is such thoughts that add richness to this novel, that stretch it beyond the level of other works of warfare.

Mellas is evacuated to a hospital ship, where he encounters regimental discipline but also a sympathetic nurse, a nurse who recognizes the humanity in him. For me, this connection between two human beings, my soft spot, results in the most moving chapter in this novel.

Back in headquarters, Lieutenant Fitch, the company commander, is transferred, and Lieutenant Hawke is given a bronze star and made company commander. But then a dummy grenade is tossed by black Marines, and Bravo troops are ordered to give up all their arms. The dramatic repercussions of this act create the novel’s final impact, but Mellas keeps silent about the perpetrators because of his loyalty to the company as a whole, and his desire to keep it as an effective unit.

The violent deaths that follow help to round off this novel, but they seem originated by the author as much as by the rebellious black troops who have been a presence throughout the novel. Marlantes then lends substance to his novel by concluding with a three-page chapter in which Mellas muses: “He knew there could be no meaning to someone who was dead. Meaning came out of living, Meaning could come only from his choices and actions. Meaning was made, not discovered. He saw that he alone could make [a friend’s] death meaningful by choosing what [that friend] had chosen, the company. Things he’d want before—power, prestige—now seemed empty, and their pursuit endless….he would not look for answers in the past or future. Painful events would always be painful. The dead are dead, forever.”

This is one message of this novel, a message that takes it beyond a novel about war. But there are two other messages in the final chapter. When the soldiers chant that if each one’s death is good enough for that person, it is also good enough for them, they are cohering as one unit. (And the races as well?) Meanwhile, Mellas recognizes that both he and they have been like shadows passing across a landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things but leaving nothing itself changed.

Karl Marlantes is a highly decorated veteran of the war in Vietnam. One senses that his experience in Vietnam filled the rest of his life, as he put all of himself into this work. His thoughts about life and death, about God and fate, about caring and meaning certainly suggest this. As a result, this would appear to be the only novel that he will ever write, which probably satisfied him at the moment of its publication. On the other hand, there might well be an editor who one day will persuade him—or his heirs—that another novel (or novelette) might be found in those 1,000 manuscript pages that were deleted from this work. If such a work is found that will stand on its own, I will not begrudge its publication. I think may be quite good. (February, 2015)