Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

B. R. Myers didn't like Denis Johnson's National Book Award winning Tree of Smoke much.

"Underlying the hype is the silly notion that if a work introduces plenty of characters and traipses after them for enough years and pages, it is ipso facto ambitious. The true mark of an ambitious work is its style and depth. We would recognize Anna Karenina as such a novel even if only its first few pages had survived, because they depict characters with extraordinarily rich and complex inner lives. In contrast, Tree of Smoke starts off with one Seaman Bill Houston shooting a tiny monkey he sees in the jungle. (The symbolism of this happening hours after JFK’s assassination is crude in more ways than one.) The animal, evidently a gun buff, spreads its arms 'enthusiastically' before dropping to the ground, where its mood changes. 'With fascination, then with revulsion, [Bill] realized that the monkey was crying.' Such a realization would take far too short a time for anyone to become fascinated, let alone for fascination to yield to revulsion and why revulsion anyway? Later, Bill meets up with his younger brother James, a soldier. For some reason, Bill does not know James’s age, and appears surprised to learn that he is not yet 18. James 'done lied' to the recruiter. The level of their conversation can be imagined."

I haven't read the book myself, but its first sentence is: "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed." That's so wrong on just about every level.

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