Is ‘Tree of Smoke’ the Greatest Book Ever Written?

Um, well, no, though Dennis Johnson’s sprawling novel, about Vietnam, & etc. is getting the kind of critical praise that’s making me blush just to read it. And the people have spoken; in the past week, three people have approached me on the subway to ask me about it, which never happens (or, you know, I maybe I’m usually reading crappy books on the train, so no one cares). Still, it is a pretty amazing piece of work. I’m about 400 pages in, and I’m still not entirely sure where this train is taking me, but Johnson is such a beautiful writer that I’m happy to go along.

Typical is this passage, which actually made me put the book down while riding the D train the other day, it’s so nicely done:

Minh disembarked at the roadside and bought a roll and a cup of tea in a store whose proprietress remembered him and asked about his family and said the water taxis were running again these days, but not many. The ville lay two miles down the brown river. He walked. After the city, things smelled different here. the reeking water. The smoke from the burn piles of deadfall and trash had the odor of legend, the chicken droppings, even. Everything carried him off-where? To here. But not to this moment. Here he had fished from the back of a buffalo while beside him Brother Thu had held the string of a kite surging in the winds above . . . even then their lines plumbing opposite depths. One to high school and the air force, one to the monks.

He saw a little traffic on the water. An old woman with an old woman’s mashed-in face poled past in a skiff keeping to the shallows, every push of the pole threatening to steal her last breath.

Minh walked under a gray sky, sorrow biting at his throat. He stepped into a banana grove and tore off three of the fruits and ate, tossing the peels in the water as he and Thu had done in a better world.

He imagined his brother burning—he often did—Thu’s body in the flame, dreadful pain outside, going up his nostrils and in. And then as a monkey holds two branches for an instant, lets go of the first and clings to the new one, he was no longer the body, but the fire.

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