Saturday, January 01, 2011

THE Vietnam War Novel

In a daze, wandering into the supermarket. Spooks and shaman's, death delivering double/triple agents, assassins. The air is ice-chilled and unnaturally dry. The December monsoon's sweat instantly evaporates from my skin when I enter through tall glass doors that knew I was coming. I feel that Viet Cong are hiding at the end of each aisle, ready to pop a sniper's shot at my unmissable belly, or is it a Psy-Op, a tree of smoke?

I'm just coming from the coffee shop, where I've just finished reading a novel...


Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. Man! Reads like the night scene in Apocalypse Now, but 700 pages. At the end, everybody permanently damaged, changed, weirded-out, mythologised, and still fighting the enemy (enemies from either sides) in their heads.


The opening sequence, OMG, a soldier shoots and wounds a monkey in the jungle near his camp in the Philippines. The first living creature he has ever shot. Stung with remorse, he puts down his gun and he picks the small creature up. It is crying. It gasps its last breaths in his hands. He leaves the jungle devastated, he forgets the gun, has to go back a pick it up. The monkey's body is gone... Seriously, I cried along with the monkey.

The most perfect way to prepare for what's coming. Touching, tense, confronting, bitter, raw, beautiful, innocent and about to be altered profoundly and irredeemably... And not for the better.

Later, young Skip, a virgin in not just the usual way, is taken by more worldly-wise soldier buddies into a tiny bar in a tiny village somewhere outside Saigon. They drink a few beers, chat up the 'hostesses' and then he takes one of these Vietnamese hookers into the back room. He is amazed and reverential at her perfect body, awed at the beauty radiating from her pre-Raphaelite face. Even more amazed when she lies back on the edge of bed, her feet on the floor, spread apart, and proceeds to smoke a cigarette with her pussy.

So many scenes like this set you up and then they stun you, man they stun you hard...

Well maybe not so much those us who have done our tours of duty through the bars of Patpong and Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, but still they are strong, vicious and teetering on the insane.


And one amazing thing (I just realized this after I first posted) about a novel set in the mad world of war, where random death and destruction are inherent and expected - hey this is a war novel after all - is that almost every act of violence or death has repercussions. Like in real life of course where your actions mean things, things happen to real people who have real bodies and real emotions, and then the cops come around.

There is no (not many anyway, except, say, the generic hooker mention above) fictional 'cannon fodder' in here - every character is a person, with emotional depth and uniqueness, and there are MANY characters in this book. War And Peace comes to mind, at least in this attribute of Johnson's novel. Everyone death diminishes me, but makes for a deliciously complicated and emotionally powerful story.


What do I mean?

Imagine a scene in Star Wars in which Luke is about to shoot some Storm Trooper, but before this can happen the Storm Trooper pulls off his mask and pleads for mercy - "I have kids, I love my kids, don't kill me! I am only doing this job to pay for my wife's cancer treatment, let me live!!" sort of thing.

Also (my favorite thought along these lines), imagine some shoot-em-up movie where the main guy is out for revenge - "You killed my brother" - and blast dozens of anonymous goons to smithereens in this virtuous quest. Imagine each one of these dead goons has a brother, right? Imagine each of these goons' brothers decide to chase after the main guy, and in the process kill another bunch of goons, who naturally enough have revengeful brothers who chase after the goon who... ad infinitum.

Well, there is nothing like that...


The Vietnam War. If you want the definitive novel, here it is.

More about Tree of Smoke


p.s. I apologize, patient readers, for not blogging for so long - hopefully work and travel will settle down for a while and I get some good rumination time... Maybe even be funny again.


savannah said...

Happy New Year, sugarpie! xoxoxox

(i'll read the post when my eyes come unstuck...big party last night at my house!)

expat@large said...

I wrote the post with my eyes stuck together!!!

marke said...

He's alive ........ HE'S ALIIIVE !!!! ......

Happy NY expat.

Michael McClung said...

you were funny?

I kid, I kid :)

expat@large said...

Marke: barely - no more champagne brunches!!!

MM: no, no, I wasn't... I was nasty, sarcastic, whiney and bitter

NYresolution - be n,s,w &b again!!!

dibabear said...

Sounds like a good resolution. Mine is to make no more resolutions. So far, so good.

Glad to read something from you as I thought perhaps the offerings on 8th Avenue caught you. Then again prolly not given your experiences in Patpong and Soi Cowboy. As my mother would say "you'd have to have a grudge against your dick to want with one of those." (the 8th Avenue variety).

Joanne Casey said...

Happy New Year!

Lost in Melbourne said...

So you ARE reading some of the items collected down at Readings?

Happy New Year Phil.

expat@large said...

Scott: that's actually a purchase from way back. At Readings I bought Fran LEbowitz and that's about it. Mostly Xmas presents came from discounts store in Geelong!

Free Podcast

Related Posts with Thumbnails