Once upon a time there was a war . . . and a young American who thought of himself as the Quiet American and the Ugly American, and who wished to be neither, who wanted instead to be the Wise American, or the Good American, but who eventually came to witness himself as the Real American and finally as simply the Fucking American. That's me.
This is the story of Skip Sands—spy-in-training, engaged in Psychological Operations against the Vietcong—and the disasters that befall him thanks to his famous uncle, a war hero known in intelligence circles simply as the Colonel. This is also the story of the Houston brothers, Bill and James, young men who drift out of the Arizona desert into a war in which the line between disinformation and delusion has blurred away. In its vision of human folly, and its gritty, sympathetic portraits of men and women desperate for an end to their loneliness, whether in sex or death or by the grace of God, this is a story like nothing in our literature.
Tree of Smoke is Denis Johnson's first full-length novel in nine years, and his most gripping, beautiful, and powerful work to date.
Tree of Smoke is the 2007 National Book Award Winner for Fiction.
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About the Author
Denis Johnson (1949–2017) is the author of eight novels, one novella, one book of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. His novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award.
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Tree of Smoke
By Denis Johnson
PicadorCopyright © 2007 Denis Johnson
All rights reserved.
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 them what 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 rifle. 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 just wanted 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 cries that 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 than a 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 head and 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 monkey and 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 and drew 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 street-side 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—
Excerpted from Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Copyright © 2007 Denis Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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