Saturday, January 26, 2008

Feed the tree

There are Tree of Smoke lovers and haters. Count me on the side of the lovers. The time shifts in the first section might make you think you are in for a trippy update of Dispatches, but the book quickly moves into a year by year account of the destruction of a number of American and Vietnamese lives.

The title represents a number of images and themes in the book. It references a verse in the Bible which a grizzled intelligence vet uses as a code name and a kind of mantra. The tree is used to signify ghosts, mushroom clouds, fire, threat and, I think, the potentially weak nature of family connection. Most of the characters wrestle with family members, some betraying and some trying to save, but nearly all lead to disaster. And like smoke, many find that their family is simply gone.

Religious imagery is also significant, with characters wondering just who the Judas is and what the nature of betrayal and redemption is. Again, it is primarily at the hands of family that the action takes place and when some are accused falsely it is terribly sad. In one case, people commit wrong to help their family, and the portrayal of it is morally ambiguous.

While this is a Vietnam novel, very little combat is depicted. This book is more in the mold of spy fiction with its exploration of the life of the operative and the Quiet American (which one character references more than once.) Ultimately it is about the human cost of war and it shows the cost is even worse than is usually shown.

There is a wide range of characters, including a Canadian nurse whose husband disappears in the Philippines, two working class brothers who experiences in the Navy and Army do not set them up well for civilian life, a Vietnamese Viet Cong volunteer who now doubts his choice, and the elder operative. The nephew of said operative, named Skip, is the core. He, and his uncle, ties the characters together and he goes through the worst of all of them.

The book's epilogue is a bit long, as it covers almost all of the surviving characters in 1983, but it helps wrap up the book. I had to re-read the opening section set in 1963, as it made little sense when first read, but clearly sets up the major themes of the book which include the possibility of spiritual death, betrayal, family and cultures which cannot comprehend one another.

Ignore the haters who, in my view, criticize tangential detail. My first reaction on closing the book was that I needed to read it again because I realized that I missed quite a bit. That is the sign of a great book.

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