Doubt is the overriding theme of Tree of Smoke, which just won the National Book Award, and doubt is its downfall. Johnson's male characters doubt themselves. They doubt their governments. They doubt their gods and their families. They even seem to doubt death: one ends in several possibly empty graves. This vaporous attitude in which no character can anchor even himself leads Johnson to define a few unchanging women -- a mother trudging between church and work, a wife devoted to herbal remedies, a nurse nurturing a bleak faith. They become the thin, still centers in an otherwise drifting, plotless novel.
To unify Tree of Smoke, Johnson draws on his skill as a poet, infusing the book with images that accumulate, wash past, then recur. Lava lamps churn in every Vietnamese bar. Monkeys suffer mortal wounds. Children crouch flat-footed. Spread throughout the 600-page novel, these details develop a sense of ennui that is the book's only unqualified artistic success. As one character observes, "A poem doesn't have to rhyme. It just has to remind you of things and wring them out of you." What a vast, vague wringer this is.
Tree of Smoke may be the most beautifully written bad novel since Victor Hugo's Waterloo digression in Les Mis & eacute;rables. Perhaps war prompts poets to amplify their language.
Through their obtuse philosophical language, Johnson's characters' diatribes reek of TV political roundtables. His military grunts convey the same fear as extras in Aliens, but with a broader vocabulary.
Johnson's final confrontation with doubt is crammed into the book's last 50 pages, in the thoughts and deeds of two peripheral characters, one of whom undergoes a sudden about-face. It's as though Tree of Smoke emerged from Johnson with the same force of will as one of his characters, "keeping afloat only for the sake of it, waiting for his strength to give out."