Tree of Smoke: Denis Johnson’s Signifying Monkey

I’m excited to be attending the National Book Awards ceremony this Wednesday evening in New York City, along with a few other bloggers who will be providing reports in formats ranging from high-tech real-time (that’s Ed) to low-tech whenever-I-get-around-to-it time (that’s me). I’ll be dressing up for the occasion (which proves that I’m excited, because it takes a lot to get me to dress up) and I’ll be rooting for David Kirby’s The House on Boulevard Street to win the poetry award and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke to win the fiction award.

The well-reviewed Tree of Smoke has been generating a bit of backlash lately. Karen Karbo cited the thick 624-pager to Galley Cat as an example of “brick-lit”, and Otto Penzler refers to it in the New York Sun as “impenetrable, disjointed, confusing, structurally inept, and filled with characters as well-defined as phantasms”. This puts me in a funny position, because I’m usually all too eager to pile on the hate when a long and incomprehensible novel is over-praised, and yet I am not having a similar experience at all with Tree of Smoke (though I must confess that I have still not finished the book). The plot is easy enough to follow, the prose is clear and unpretentious, and the author’s compassion for his characters gives the stark war story an uncanny human glow.

I have never liked a Denis Johnson book before, not even his slim Jesus’s Son, which felt a little too stylishly “heroin-chic” for my tastes. I might have never persevered with Tree of Smoke if it weren’t for the knockout scene at the very beginning of the book, which I like so much that it’s a pleasure to type it in full here. This is our introduction to the book’s hero, Seaman William Houston, who is wandering alone through a jungle looking to shoot a wild boar.

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.

Seam 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 as 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 hand, 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.

There is so much that moves me in this sequence: the believability of the detail (the monkey’s “meager back”, the belly expanding like a balloon), the spooky anthropomorphism as the soldier cradles the monkey like a baby, the complete pointlessness of the violence. This is my idea of the kind of strong opener a writer needs to produce if he or she wants to motivate readers to stick with a 624-page novel. It sure worked for me.

4 Responses

  1. nationizing artYes, I
    nationizing art

    Yes, I understand it’s the National book award. It’s their award, their entity. But…books and writing aren’t national. You don’t have to be born in a certain planet spot to be a writer. Thus, I object to awards for American citizens published in the US. In fact I object to the concept of citizenship. How do we get beyond that when art is nationalistic? It would greatly help, not hurt, this book group to acknowledge the best works written by earthlings.

  2. WellI could have done without

    I could have done without all that, for sure. But at least I know never, ever, ever to read that book.

    An awards ceremony about books… it tries to sound interesting, through no lack of effort on your part, but it seems a bit like a mini-series about concrete to me. And I’m pretty sure Diddy isn’t going to show up at the event or at the after party. Although if he did, I bet more people would pay attention.

  3. I really think only
    I really think only acknowledging the best works written by earthlings discriminates against authors from Mars, dude. Let’s not planetize art.

  4. Done with JohnsonYeah, Jesus
    Done with Johnson

    Yeah, Jesus Son didn’t do anything for me either. I don’t understand the hype that book got. Denis Johnson and I are done. Just like Chuck Dickens and I are done. I won’t miss either of them.

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