One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year
"The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson's.” Jonathan Franzen
Named A Best Book of the Year by Time, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Slate, The National Book Critics Circle, The Christian Science Monitor. . .
Tree of Smoke is the story of William "Skip" Sands, CIAengaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcongand the disasters that befall him. It is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert and into a war where the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In the words of Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, Tree of Smoke is "bound to become one of the classic works of literature produced by that tragic and uncannily familiar war."
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Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed. Seaman Houston and the other two recruits slept while the first reports traveled around the world. There was one small nightspot on the island, a dilapidated club with big revolving fans in the ceiling and one bar and one pinball game; the two marines who ran the club had come by to wake them up and tell themwhat had happened to the President. The two marines sat with the three sailors on the bunks in the Quonset hut for transient enlisted men, watching the air conditioner drip water into a coffee can and drinking beer. The Armed Forces Network from Subic Bay stayed on through the night, broadcasting bulletins about the unfathomable murder.
Now it was late in the morning, and Seaman Apprentice William Houston, Jr., began feeling sober again as he stalked the jungle of Grande Island carrying a borrowed. 22- caliber file. There were supposed to be some wild boars roaming this island military resort, which was all he had seen so far of the Philippines. He didn’t know how he felt about this country. He justwanted to do some hunting in the jungle. There were supposed to be some wild boars around here.
He stepped carefully, thinking about snakes and trying to be quiet because he wanted to hear any boars before they charged him. He was aware that he was terrifically on edge. From all around came the ten thousand sounds of the jungle, as well as the cries of gulls and the far- off surf, and if he stopped dead and listened a minute, he could hear also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears. If he stayed motionless only another couple of seconds, the bugs found him and whined around his head.
He propped the rifle against a stunted banana plant and removed his headband and wrung it out and wiped his face and stood there awhile, waving away the mosquitoes with the cloth and itching his crotch absent- mindedly. Nearby, a seagull seemed to be carrying on an argument with itself, a series of protesting squeaks interrupted by contradictory lower- pitched criesthat sounded like, Huh! Huh! Huh! And something moving from one tree to another caught Seaman Houston’s eye.
He kept his vision on the spot where he’d seen it among the branches of a rubber tree, putting his hand out for the rifle without altering the direction of his gaze. It moved again. Now he saw that it was some sort of monkey, not much bigger thana Chihuahua dog. Not precisely a wild boar, but it presented itself as something to be looked at, clinging by its left hand and both feet to the tree’s trunk and digging at the thin rind with an air of tiny, exasperated haste. Seaman Houston took the monkey’s meager back under the rifle’s sight. He raised the barrel a few degrees and took the monkey’s head into the sight. Without really thinking about anything at all, he squeezed the trigger.
The monkey flattened itself out against the tree, spreading its arms and legs enthusiastically, and then, reaching around with both hands as if trying to scratch its back, it tumbled down to the ground. Seaman Houston was terrified to witness its convulsions there. It hoisted itself, pushing off the ground with one arm, and sat back against the tree trunk with its legs spread out before it, like somebody resting from a difficult job of labor.
Seaman Houston took himself a few steps nearer, and, from the distance of only a few yards, he saw that the monkey’s fur was very shiny and held a henna tint in the shadows and a blond tint in the light, as the leaves moved above it. It looked from side to side, its breath coming in great rapid gulps, its belly expanding tremendously with every breath like a balloon.The shot had been low, exiting from the abdomen.
Seaman Houston felt his own stomach tear itself in two. “Jesus Christ!” he shouted at the monkey, as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition. He thought his head would explode, if the forenoon kept burning into the jungle all around him and the gulls kept screaming and the monkey kept regarding its surroundings carefully, moving its headand black eyes from side to side like someone following the progress of some kind of conversation, some kind of debate, some kind of struggle that the jungle—the morning—the moment— was having with itself. Seaman Houston walked over to the monkeyand laid the rifle down beside it and lifted the animal up in his two hands, holding its buttocks in one and cradling its head with the other. With fascination, then with revulsion, he realized that the monkey was crying. Its breath came out in sobs, and tears welled out of its eyes when it blinked. It looked here and there, appearing no more interested in him than in anything else it might be seeing. “Hey,” Houston said, but the monkey didn’t seem to hear.
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. When he got back to the club down near the water, Houston saw that a school of violet- tinted jellyfish had washed up on the gray beach, hundreds of them, each about the size of a person’s hand, translucent and shriveling under the sun.The island’s small harbor lay empty. No boats ever came here other than the ferry from the naval base across Subic Bay.
Only a few yards off, a couple of bamboo cabins fronted the strip of sand beneath palatial trees dribbling small purple blooms onto their roofs. From inside one of the cabins came the cries of a couple making love, a whore, Seaman Houston assumed, and some sailor. Houston squatted in the shade and listened until he heard them giggling no more, breathing no more, and a lizard in the cabin’s eaves began to call—a brief annunciatory warble and then a series of harsh, staccato chuckles—gek- ko; gek- ko; gek- ko . . .
After a while the man came out, a crew- cut man in his forties with a white towel hitched under his belly and a cigarette clamped between his front teeth, and stood there splayfooted, holding the towel together at his hip with one hand, staring at some close but invisible thing, and swaying. An officer, probably. He took his cigarette between his thumb and finger anddrew on it and let out a fog around his face. “Another mission accomplished.”
The neighboring cabin’s front door opened and a Filipina, naked, hand over her groin, said, “He don’t like to do it.”
The officer shouted, “Hey, Lucky.”
A small Asian man came to the door, fully dressed in military fatigues.
“You didn’t give her a jolly old time?”
The man said, “It could be bad luck.”
“Karma,” the officer said.
“It could be,” the little fellow said.
To Houston the officer said, “You looking for a beer?”
Houston had meant to be off. Now he realized that he’d forgotten to leave and that the man was talking to him. With his free hand the man tossed his smoke and snaked aside the drape of the towel. To Houston he said—as he loosed almost straight downward a stream that foamed on the earth, destroying his cigarette butt—“You see something worth looking at, you let me know.”
Feeling a fool, Houston went into the club. Inside, two young Filipinas in bright flowered dresses were playing pinball and talking so fast, while the large fans whirled above them, that Seaman Houston felt his equilibrium give. Sam, one of the marines, stood behind the bar. “Shut up, shut up,” he said. He lifted his hand, in which he happened to be holding a spatula.
“What’d I say?” Houston asked.
“Excuse.” Sam tilted his head toward the radio, concentrating on its sound like a blind man. “They caught the guy.”
“They said that before breakfast. We knew that.”
“There’s more about him.”
“Okay,” Houston said.
He drank some ice water and listened to the radio, but he suffered such a headache right now he couldn’t make out any of the words.
After a while the officer came in wearing a gigantic Hawaiian-print shirt, accompanied by the young Asian.
“Colonel, they caught him,” Sam told the officer. “His name is Oswald.”
The colonel said, “What kind of name is that?”—apparently as outraged by the killer’s name as by his atrocity.
“Fucking sonofabitch,” Sam said.
“The sonofabitch,” said the colonel. “I hope they shoot his balls off. I hope they shoot him up the ass.” Wiping at his tears without embarrassment he said, “Is Oswald his first name or his last name?”
Houston told himself that first he’d seen this officer pissing on the ground, and now he was watching him cry.
To the young Asian, Sam said, “Sir, we’re hospitable as hell. But generally Philippine military aren’t served here.”
“Lucky’s from Vietnam,” the colonel said.
“Vietnam. You lost?”
“No, not lost,” the man said.
“This guy,” the colonel said, “is already a jet pilot. He’s a South Viet Nam Air Force captain.”
Sam asked the young captain, “Well, is it a war over there, or what? War?—budda- budda- budda.” He made his two hands into a submachine gun, jerking them in unison. “Yes? No?”
The captain turned from the American, formed the phrases in his mind, practiced them, turned back, and said, “I don’t know it’s war. A lot people are dead.”
“That’ll do,” the colonel agreed. “That counts.”
“What you doing here?”
“I’m here for helicopters training,” the captain said.
“You don’t look hardly old enough for a tricycle,” Sam said.
“How old are you?”
“I’m getting this little Slope his beer. You like San Miguel? You mind that I called you a Slope? It’s a bad habit.”
“Call him Lucky,” the colonel said. “The man’s buying, Lucky. What’s your poison?”
The boy frowned and deliberated inside himself mysteriously and said, “I like Lucky Lager.”
“And what kind of cigarettes you smoke?” the colonel asked.
“I like the Lucky Strike,” he said, and everybody laughed.
Suddenly Sam looked at young Seaman Houston as if just recognizing him and said, “Where’s my rifle?”
For a heartbeat Houston had no idea what he might be talking about. Then he said, “Shit.”
“Where is it?” Sam didn’t seem terribly interested—just curious.
“Shit,” Seaman Houston said. “I’ll get it.”
He had to go back into the jungle. It was just as hot, and just as damp. All the same animals were making the same noises, and the situation was just as terrible, he was far from the places of his memory, and the navy still had him for two more years, and the President, the President of his country, was still dead—but the monkey was gone. Sam’s rifle lay in the brush just as he’d left it, and the monkey was nowhere. Something had carried it off. He had expected to be made to see it again; so he was relieved to be walking back to the club without having to look at what he’d done. Yet he understood, without much alarm or unease, that he wouldn’t be spared this sight forever.
Seaman Houston was promoted once, and then demoted. He glimpsed some of Southeast Asia’s great capitals, walked through muggy nights in which streetside lanterns shook in the stale breezes, but he never landed long enough to lose his sea legs, only long enough to get confused, to see the faces flickering and hear the suffering laughter. When his tour was up he enlisted for another, enchanted above all by the power to create his destiny just by signing his name.
Houston had two younger brothers. The nearest to him in age, James, enlisted in the infantry and was sent to Vietnam, and one night just before the finish of his second tour in the navy, Houston took a train from the naval base in Yokosuka, Japan, to the city of Yokohama, where he and James had arranged to meet at the Peanut Bar. It was 1967, more than three years after the murder of John F. Kennedy.
In the train car Houston felt gigantic, looking over the heads of pitch- black hair. The little Japanese passengers stared at him without mirth, without pity, without shame, until he felt as if his throat were being twisted. He got off, and kept himself on a straight path through the late drizzle by following wet streetcar tracks to the Peanut Bar. He looked forward to saying something in English.
The Peanut Bar was large and crowded with sailors and with scrubbed- looking boy merchant marines, and the voices were thick in his head, the smoke thick in his lungs.
He found James near the stage and went over to him, holding his hand out for a shake. “I’m leaving Yokosuka, man! I’m back on a ship!” was the first thing he said.
The band drowned out his greeting—a quartet of Japanese Beatles imitators in blinding white outfits, with fringe. James, in civvies, sat at a little table staring at them, unaware of anything but this spectacle, and Bill fired a peanut at his open mouth.
James indicated the performers. “That’s gotta be ridiculous.” He had to shout to make himself even faintly audible.
“What can I say? This ain’t Phoenix.”
“Almost as ridiculous as you in a sailor suit.”
“They let me out two years ago, and I re- upped. I don’t know—I just did it.”
“Were you loaded?”
“I was pretty loaded, yeah.”
Bill Houston was amazed to find his brother no longer a little boy. James wore a flattop haircut that made his jaw look wide and strong, and he sat up straight, no fidgeting around. Even in civilian dress he looked like a soldier.
They ordered beer by the pitcher and agreed that except for a few strange things, like the Peanut Bar, they both liked Japan—though James had spent, so far, six hours in the country between flights, and in the morning would board another plane for Vietnam—or at any rate, they both approved of the Japanese. “I’m here to tell you,” Bill said when the band went on break and their voices could be heard, “these Japs have got it all plumb, level, and square. Meanwhile, in the tropics, man, nothing but shit. Everybody’s brain is boiled fat mush.”
“That’s what they tell me. I guess I’ll find out.”
“What about the fighting?”
“What about it?”
“What do they say?”
“Mostly they say you’re just shooting at trees, and the trees are shooting back.”
“But really. Is it pretty bad?”
“I guess I’ll find out.”
“Are you scared?”
“During training, I seen a guy shoot another guy by accident.”
“In the ass, if you can believe it. It was just an accident.”
Bill Houston said, “I saw a guy murder a guy in Honolulu.”
“What, in a fight?”
“Well, this sonofabitch owed this other sonofabitch money.”
“What was it, in a bar?”
“No. Not in a bar. The guy went around back of his apartment building and called him to the window. We were walking past the place and he says, ‘Hang on, I gotta talk to this guy about a debt.’ They talked one minute and then the guy I was with—he shot the other one. Put his gun right against the window screen, man, and pop, one time, like that. Forty- five automatic. The guy kind of fell back inside his apartment.”
“You gotta be kidding.”
“No. I ain’t kidding.”
“Are you serious? You were there?”
“We were just walking around. I had no idea he was gonna kill someone.”
“What’d you do?”
“Just about filled my britches with poop. He turns around and sticks his gun under his shirt and, ‘Hey, let’s get some brew.’ Like the incident is erased.”
“What was your comment about all this?”
“It kind of felt like I didn’t want to mention it.”
“I know—like, shit, what do you say?”
“You can bet I was wondering what he thought about me as a witness. That’s why I missed the sailing. He was on our rig. If I’d shipped out with him, I’d’ve gone eight weeks without closing both eyes.”
The brothers drank from their mugs simultaneously and then sought, each in his own mind, for something to talk about. “When that guy got shot in the ass,” James said, “he went into shock immediately.”
“Shit. How old are you?”
“Almost eighteen,” James said.
“The army let you enlist when you’re only seventeen?”
“Nope. I done lied.”
“Are you scared?”
“Yeah. Not every minute.”
“Not every minute?”
“I haven’t seen any fighting. I want to see it, the real deal, the real shit. I just want to.”
“Crazy little fucker.”
The band resumed with a number by the Kinks called “You Really Got Me”:
You really got me—
You really got me—
You really got me—
Before very much longer the two brothers got into an argument with each other over nothing, and Bill Houston spilled a pitcher of beer right into the lap of somebody at the next table—a Japanese girl, who hunched her shoulders and looked sad and humiliated.
She sat with a girlfriend and also two American men, two youngsters who didn’t know how to react.
The beer dribbled off the table’s edge while James fumbled to right the empty pitcher, saying, “It gets like this sometimes. It just does.”
The young girl made no move at all to adjust herself. She stared at her lap.
“What’s wrong with us,” James asked his brother, “are we fucked up or something? Every time we get together, something bad happens.”
“Fucked- up, shitty, I know. Because we’re family.”
“None of that shit don’t matter to me no more.”
“It must matter some,” James insisted, “or else why’d you haul yourself all this way to meet me in Yokohama?”
“Yeah,” Bill said, “in the Peanut Bar.”
“The Peanut Bar!”
“And why’d I miss my ship?”
James said, “You missed your ship?”
“I should’ve been on her at four this afternoon.”
“You missed it?”
“She might still be there. But I expect they’re out of the harbor by now.”
Bill Houston felt his eyes flood with tears, choked with sudden emotion at his life and this place with everybody driving on the left.
James said, “I never liked you.”
“I know. Me too.”
“I always thought you were a little-dick sonofabitch,” Bill said.
“I always hated you,” his brother said.
“God, I’m sorry,” Bill Houston said to the Japanese girl. He dragged some money from his wallet and tossed it onto the wet table, a hundred yen or a thousand yen, he couldn’t see which.
“It’s my last year in the navy,” he explained to the girl. He would have thrown down more, but his wallet was empty. “I came across this ocean and died. They might as well bring back my bones. I’m all different.”
The afternoon of that November day in 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Captain Nguyen Minh, the young Viet Nam Air Force pilot, dove with a mask and snorkel just off the shore of Grande Island. This was a newfound passion. The experience came close to what the birds of the air must enjoy, drifting above a landscape, propelled by the action of their own limbs, actually flying, as opposed to piloting a machine. The webbed fins strapped to his feet gave him a lot of thrust as he scooted above a vast school of parrot fish feeding on a reef, the multitude of their small beaks pattering against the coral like a shower of rain. American Navy men enjoyed scuba and skin- diving and had torn up all the coral and made the fish very timid so that the entire school disappeared in a blink when he swam near.
Minh wasn’t much of a swimmer, and without others around he could let himself feel as afraid as he actually was.
He’d passed all the previous night with the prostitute the colonel had paid for. The girl had slept on the floor and he in the bed. He hadn’t wanted her. He wasn’t sure about these Filipino people.
Then today, toward the end of the morning, they’d gone into the club to learn that the President of the United States, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been murdered. The two Filipinas were still with them, and each girl took one of the colonel’s substantial arms and held on as if keeping him moored to the earth while he brought his surprise and grief under control. They sat at a table all morning and listened to the news reports. “For God’s sake,” the colonel said. “For God’s sake.” By afternoon the colonel had cheered up and the beer was going down and down. Minh tried not to drink very much, but he wanted to be polite,and he got very dizzy. The girls disappeared, they came back, the fan went around in the ceiling. A very young naval recruit joined them and somebody asked Minh if a war was actually being waged somewhere in Vietnam.
That night the colonel wanted to switch girls, and Minh determined that he would follow through as he had last night, just to make the colonel happy and to show him that he was sincerely grateful. This second girl was the one he preferred, in anycase. She was prettier to his eyes and spoke better English. But the girl asked to have the air conditioner on. He wanted it off. He couldn’t hear things with the air conditioner going. He liked the windows open. He liked the sound of insects batting against the screens. They didn’t have such screens in his family’s house on the Mekong Delta, or even in his uncle’s home in Saigon.
“What do you want?” the girl said. She was very contemptuous of him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Take off your clothes.”
They took off their clothes and lay side by side on the double bed in the dark, and did nothing else. He could hear an American sailor a few doors down talking to one of his friends loudly, perhaps telling a story. Minh couldn’t understand a word of it, though he considered his own English pretty fair.
“The colonel has a big one.” The girl was fondling his penis. “Is he your friend?”
Minh said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know is he your friend? Why are you with him?”
“I don’t know.”
“When did you know him the first time?”
“Just one or two weeks.”
“Who is he?” she said.
Minh said, “I don’t know.” To stop her touching his groin, he clasped her to him.
“You just want body-body?” she said.
“What does it mean?” he said.
“Just body-body,” she said. She got up and shut the window. She felt the air conditioner with the palm of her hand, but didn’t touch its dials. “Gimme a cigarette,” she said.
“No. I don’t have any cigarette,” he said.
She threw her dress on over her head, slipped her feet into her sandals. She wore no underclothes. “Gimme a coupla quarters,” she said.
“What does it mean?” he said.
“What does it mean?” she said. “What does it mean? Gimme a coupla quarters. Gimme a coupla quarters.”
“Is it money?” he said. “How much is it?”
“Gimme a coupla quarters,” she said. “I wanna see if he gonnasell me some cigarette. I wanna coupla pack cigarette—a pack for me, and one pack for my cousin. Two pack.”
“The colonel can do it,” he said.
“One Weenston. One Lucky Strike.”
“Excuse me. It’s chilly to night,” he said. He got up and put his clothes on.
He stepped out front. From behind him he heard the small sounds of the young woman inside dealing with her purse, setting it on a table. She clapped and rubbed her hands and a puff of perfume drifted past him from the open window and he inhaled it. His ears rang, and tears clouded his sight. He cleared a thickness from his throat, hung his head, spat down between his feet. He missed his homeland.
When he’d first joined the air force and then been transferred to Da Nang and into officers’ training, only seventeen, he’dcried every night in his bed for several weeks. He’d been flying fighter jets for nearly three years now, since he was nineteen years old. Two months ago he’d turned twenty- two, and he could expect to continue flying missions until the one that killed him.
Later he sat on the porch in a canvas chair, leaning forward, forearms on his knees, smoking—he actually did possess a packof Luckies—when the colonel returned from the club with his arms around both the girls. Minh’s escort had a pack in her hand and waved it happily.
“So you explored the briny deeps today.”
Minh wasn’t sure what he meant. He said, “Yes.”
“Ever been down there in any of those tunnels?” the colonel asked.
“What is it?—tunnels.”
“Tunnels,” the colonel said. “Tunnels all under Vietnam. You been down inside those things?”
“Not yet. I don’t think so.”
“Nor have I, son,” the colonel said. “I wonder what’s down there.”
“I don’t know.”
“Nobody does,” the colonel said.
“The cadres use the tunnels,” Minh said. “The Vietminh.”
Now the colonel seemed to grieve for his President again, because he said, “This world spits out a beautiful man like he was poison.”
Minh had noticed you could talk to the colonel for a long time without recognizing he was drunk.
He’d met the colonel only a few mornings back, out front of the helicopter maintenance yard at the Subic base, and they’d sought each other out continually ever since. The colo nel had not been introduced to him—the colonel had introduced himself—and didn’t appear to be linked to him in any official way. They were housed together with dozens of other transient officers in a barracks in a compound originally constructed and then quickly abandoned, according to the colonel, by the AmericanCentral Intelligence Agency.
Minh knew the colonel was one to stick with. Minh had a custom of picking out situations, people, as good luck, bad luck. He drank Lucky Lager, he smoked Lucky Strikes. The colonel called him “Lucky.”
“John F. Kennedy was a beautiful man,” the colonel said. “That’s what killed him.”
Excerpted from Tree of Smoke.By Denis Johnson.
Copyright © 2007 by Denis Johnson.
Published in the United in the United States by Farrar, Starus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.