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Tree of Smoke, and Other Books by Denis Johnson

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I started into the 18-disc audio version of Tree of Smoke and was quickly drawn in. Great narrator, and a structure that reminds me of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. But what I like most about the book is its religious angle.

I discovered an interview with Norman Rush that touched on this before I came to the first mentions (I think they were the first) of God and faith, toward the end of disc 2:

"Pretty much everything I have to say about Tree of Smoke is in my NYRB review of it, really. Does this excerpt, from the end of that review, address your question?

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I'm reading Tree of Smoke currently. Denis Johnson is at the top of my list of favorite writers. If you haven't read Jesus Son, do. There have been periods where I have given copies away like a Campus Crusader handing out 4 spiritual laws tracts.

Much of my sense of Denis Johnson's personal belief is derived from this book. The "higher power" of recovery runs through a lot of that book. I will leave this here for now, continue reading with renewed purpose and then return to this topic.

I would be willing to stay up late on any given night and argue that Jesus Son is the best American collection of short stories since Snows of Kilimanjaro. Did I mention that I really like Denis Johnson?

Edited by mumbleypeg

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The reviews for the book have generally been glowing. And now, the faith aspect and comparison to the Things They Carried make me REALLY interested. Aside from this and the short story collection, what else has Johnson written?

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All Novels:

Already Dead: A California Gothic

Fiskadoro

Resuscitation of a Hanged Man

The Stars At Noon

Angels, (this may be out of print)

Seek:Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond. essays

The Throne Of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly:Poems Collected and New.

Named after this piece of outsider art .

There are also 5 songs co written by Johnson on Jim Rolls album Inhabiting the Ball.

(is my obssesive nature showing?)

Edited by mumbleypeg

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The book lost me toward the end, I'm afraid, but really, it was too much to take in as an audiobook. An excellent reader made it consistently fascinating to listen to, but I realized about three quarters of the way through that I had no idea where the book was going, or why. That's probably a criticism of me, the reader, than it is of the writer, but to the book's credit, it kept me listening through all 18 discs.

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Is it still worth it, Christian? I almost bought the book the other day, but ended up getting a few other trade paperbacks instead (in hindsight, I wish I would've went with Tree of Smoke). That cover is gorgeous. What are the major faults of the novel (if you can give them without spoiling anything)?

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I don't know that there's any fault with the novel. It's probably me who's at fault. I'll just say that in audio format, it's difficult to track with any book over 18 discs. That's just a reality. I'm not sure it would've been the same on the printed page. I simply lost track of some of the characters during the final third of the novel, and haven't really chewed on the overall meaning, because I lost the narrative thread somewhere along the way.

Sorry that I can't be more specific.

If it provides context, you should know that I've already lost track of Don Delillo's Falling Man, and I'm only halfway through disc 1! :) So ... it's probably just me.

Can I blame D.C. traffic? No, because I've followed other books much more closely than I've followed either of the titles mentioned above.

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Listening to something as involved as Tree of Smoke actually took me two times through. I listen to tons of audiobooks and this is one of the very, very best. Narrator is perfect for this item. I even went to the bookstore and looked at the book itself to check out a few details and see if it would be as impacting if I were to read it instead of listening to it.

Either way, great.

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Yeah, I agree: The narrator is exceptional. My misgivings about the book have faded a bit since finishing it. I'm not sure the book ultimately satisfied me, but I'm not prepared to dismiss it. It's worth reading for that first half alone. Great work.

I will say, though, that I've read up on the book some since completing it, and there are some detractors out there -- fans of Johnson's other work who think this book either doesn't measure up, or is just a complete mess.

Jason: Did you take the plunge? I had meant to encourage you. If it helps, Richard Price, in his interview with Powells.com to promote "Lush Life," said he's reading Tree of Smoke right now. So even if you didn't care for the book, you could tell people you and Richard Price have similar taste.

Edited by Christian

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I stupidly passed up the chance to get the book at a nice discount, and have been regretting it since. I can't afford to buy any hardbacks at full-price at this time, but trust me

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I have spent the week sitting around and reading. Ok, I did do some walking, but what a fantastic novel. Christianity in various guises, Buddhism, nationalism, a lost sense of family, trying to participate in something bigger than yourself, Nihilism as an option. It does get a little bit dense as Skip wanders into George Bataille's writing and nihilism. The Doctor( who returns as the dog) appears to have followed the Nihilistic philosophy all the way into the cave with some dynamite.

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....."She sat in the audience thinking - someone here has cancer,someone has a broken heart, someone's soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can't remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who've ruined their health, worshiped their own lies, spat on their dreams, tuned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. All will be saved."

Denis Johnson, Tree Of Smoke.

It is a reoccurring theme in his fiction. That and hanging.

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I'm giving Johnson another try, this time via Jesus' Son, the print edition. It's a quick read, although my progress is slow. I'm only on the third story, and I've had to renew the book once.

At this point, I definitely like the book more than Nobody Move, but the seedy nature of these characters (I realize that's the point, the milieu for these stories) makes me wonder if I'll reach my limit with these stories before I've finished the book.

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I'm two-thirds of the way through Tree of Smoke, my first Johnson novel, and I'm completely buying the Hemingway and Carver comparisons. This is writing that is simultaneously brutal and beautiful. I am torn between the page-tuner of a plot and the desire to linger and savor the language.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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I'm two-thirds of the way through Tree of Smoke, my first Johnson novel, and I'm completely buying the Hemingway and Carver comparisons. This is writing that is simultaneously brutal and beautiful. I am torn between the page-tuner of a plot and the desire to linger and savor the language.

I read this (finally) last summer, and I agree. I ultimately liked the book, but I loved the writing.

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I tried listening to the audiobook once, but there was too much going on and too many shifts in perspective and location for me to keep it straight. I should try the "real" book sometime.

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I tried listening to the audiobook once, but there was too much going on and too many shifts in perspective and location for me to keep it straight. I should try the "real" book sometime.

Or you might try the audio of Johnson's Train Dreams, read, like Tree of Smoke, by Will Patton. It's short -- just two CDs -- but excellent. I'm thinking I might pick up the paper-and-ink version just to savor some of the language. It can't hurt storywise, either; this is dreamlike storytelling with words and language that are easy to get lost in (not in a bad way).

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Laura Miller, at her finest.

 

Johnson, who has reported extensively on conflicts in West Africa and Somalia, is, like Greene, a questioning Catholic writer, wandering through a fallen world of unfathomable chaos and unexpected grace that forces him to scrutinize the worst sides of himself. Is it possible to be loyal without being true, good without being moral? For that matter, is it possible to write a thriller that has something real to say about human beings?

 

Not purely, not even cleanly and certainly not perfectly. There is too much of the world in Johnson’s fiction now for him to deliver up the visionary losers who commanded his early stories. He has become, in his own way, baroque, because that’s what the world is. If you really want to live in it, and to do justice to the people who inhabit it, you have no other choice.

 

I should add that I hadn't remembered, or known, Johnson was/is a Catholic. Has that come up in this thread before? I remember discussion of faith in Tree of Smoke, but ... I'll check.

Edited by Christian

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Kinda bummed to read Michiko Kakutani's slam of this novel. But she leads into it with kind words for Tree of Smoke.

 

EDIT: Other NY Times reviewers must have liked it. The book made the papers 100 Notable Books list.

Edited by Christian

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