My First Book "Review"-Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

I've never done this before.

I've never felt the need to share my thoughts on a novel before. That's not to say that I have never been moved by a novel before, or that this novel moved me more than others.

Part of the choice is obviously my newly available forum (hint, you're looking at it now ;-), but I think the more applicable cause is that this novel is surprising me. I like to think that I have a pretty good idea what to expect from most pending experiences, but I started this one with low expectations and it is far surpassing them.

Since I've decided to give writing a serious attempt, i've learned the value of People Watching to pick up random character traits and speech ticks to reuse in my own creations.

People Watching, the time honored tradition of noticing the flow of someones speech, the way they carry themselves, their confidence under different circumstances, tends to cultivate a level of perception that lulls you into thinking you have a good measure of things.

And yes, I realize that sentence was more complicated (and more grammatically incorrect) than most you will find on this site. (I'm approaching this "Review" with a different outlook, a little less structured, a little more free-form)

Of course, you all know the old adage about assuming.

The novel I am currently reading (via audiobook CD, I have a 1 hour commute) is Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson.

I realize that reviewing a book you haven't finished reading is a little presumptuous, but it's the tone of the novel that has struck me, the richness of the characters that so impresses me.

So now you know why I chose to encapsulate the word "Review" in this post's title, lol.

The characters, from the Colonel to "Skip" Sands to Ed, all are viewed through an unbiased lens.

Their motivations, their character, is not pre-judged, not condemned or endorsed.

Johnson allows the reader to do what readers do, bring their own preconceptions to the story and draw from it what they will. It's an uncommon way to tell a story, and from my perspective as an aspiring author, a frightening one.

Frightening, because rather than only bearing responsibility for a linear "on rails" point of view, he simply presents the individual personalities, their histories and intentions as they are. The increase in scope bears with it a responsibility to flesh out those ancillary possibilities or risk the appearance of, to employ the books title as  a pun, a "Tree of Smoke", with each branch dissolving in to worthless ether the further it spreads from the trunk.

At least so far, I don't see that happening. Of course, knowing the history behind the settings in the novel lifts alot of the necessity to lay the typical groundwork of, say, a science fiction novel where the rules are not as well known.

The richness, the honesty of the characters is refreshing. The Colonel and Skip in particular, exhude the sort of moral direction that I wish more Americans shared. It's a quality that I think has been lost along the way, in the pursuit of social acceptance and the fickle attention of the schizophrenic media.

They say what they mean, mean what they say, and share emotions without getting metro about it. They have no shame, which makes them endearing in a heavily scarred grandfather sort of way without ever allowing them the imperfection of shame.

They can be crude at times, however. (In the opening chapter, Skip is urinating in plain view of a new military recruit. The recruit finds himself struck by his brazenness, and inadvertently stares.

Skips reaction, without flinching or breaking stream? "If you see something you like, you be sure to let me know."

The recruit turns his head, embarrassed, and Skip offers him a beer before bidding farewell to his Phillipino prostitute.

There are so many ambiguities of character in that single exchange that taken by itself it almost breeds thoughts of weak character construction When taken within the layered context of the rest of the narrative, however, it's but another stroke in a finely woven and richly colored masterpiece.

The reading of the audiobook is performed exceptionally by Will Patton, allowing the testosterone charged personalities of the main characters their sense of gravitas.

So, I can honestly say that I would recommend this novel to any aspiring author or fan of war fiction, for different reasons. For the aspiring author, I recommend it because of the reasons outlined above, and you don't need to be a fan or war drama's (I'm not) to appreciate the quality of the writing.

Thanks for reading, and as always, any feedback is greatly appreciated!

P.S....I have to admit though, at first the opening scene in the audiobook reminded me of this-Ron White Reciting his cousin Ray's Deer Hunting Story