The Revelator

Gun_2 Jim Lewis in The New York Times:

Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and “Tree of Smoke” is a tremendous book, a strange entertainment, very long but very fast, a great whirly ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder, loops unpredictably out and around, and then lurches down so suddenly at the very end that it will make your stomach flop.

“Tree of Smoke” doesn’t feel like a Denis Johnson novel, not at first, anyway. He has a fondness for the oracular mode, and he often pitches his rhetoric in a register unavailable to most contemporary writers: Isaiah among the lumpenproletariat. It’s his natural form of address, but it can sometimes be exhausting. An earlier novel, “Already Dead” (1997), started out wild and ended, 435 pages later, unhinged. “Tree of Smoke” is cannier: it begins like a very good novel by someone else, and by the time you realize how demanding it has become, it’s too late.

Sentences like this start flashing past: “She had nothing in this world but her two hands and her crazy love for Jesus, who seemed, for his part, never to have heard of her.” What a thing to say, but the book is moving on. Two drunken soldiers, one of them an amputee, have a long, inane conversation, during which the disabled one announces, “My invisible foot hurts.” Later, the other soldier weeps “like a barking dog.” The lines roll like billiard balls with weird English on them, they spin and skid, often just after their last comma, and then they plunge into their pockets with a crack.

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