To me the book was interesting because of the setting. The descriptions and details created a vivid portrait of a foreign culture. But the book is not well written. The irony is that the main character is learning to be an author. He comments on the use of cliches, but uses them anyway. One of the chapters ends with a foreshadowing that is a groaner. The plot crosses the line into the preposterous. The evil character is a cross between a Taliban and a nazi, maybe because being in the Taliban just wasn't bad enough. Part of the story is entertaining, even informative, but in the end the events became more and more unbelievable. The violence seems like a Hollywood movie rather than authentic and frightening. The reading by the author was harsh and awkward, and strangely unemotional. And why doesn't the author use the English pronunciation for "Afghanistan" and other Afhgan words? That was confusing at first, and then annoying.
Not since Moby Dick have I encountered a novel that will engage you on a gut-wrenching visceral level of realism and then slide you gently into a meditation of metaphysical matters, and then bam! back into realism. And just as literature students debate endlessly the meaning of Ahab's obsessions and Ishmael's salvation, so too will future generations have the pleasure of deciphering Johnson's challenge: what are we to make of his tree of smoke, his birth-canal tunnels, his Catholic priests of lost faith, his monks of lost purpose, his missionaries crushed by Calvinism, his psy-op warriors on the edge where "reality becomes the dream" and who become the final "compensator"? These are not easy threads to link into a unified vision, but the Johnson is throwing down a big challenge to his reader to pay attention to these underlying concerns and not merely ride the more surface story. But that is not easy either because oh what a surface story it is-amazingly poetical, with never a lazy sentence, with dialogue that crackles, and characters who will stick in your memory. It is true that the surface plot about the Colonel's plans takes an abrupt turn and seems not to matter any more, but what does matter is where the characters are going, and we are allowed to follow all of them--each to their surprising and satisfying journey's end. No one reads Moby Dick just to learn about whaling practices, so too no one should read "Tree of Smoke" just to learn about why we were in Vietnam. What Johnson's metaphysical message is, I have not come to terms with yet, but I love the challenge he has given us. And the narrator, Will Patton, gives a reading that is poignant to the point of raising the hairs on your neck. What a ride, what a ride, what a ride.
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