Tree of Smoke is many things—Johnson’s magnum opus, a pastiche of Vietnam novels and movies and nonfiction accounts, a philosophical exploration of military intelligence, an atmospheric thriller in the mode of Graham Greene or John Le Carré—but perhaps most interestingly it is the prequel we didn’t know existed to Johnson’s entire body of work. No fewer than eight of its characters have appeared in Johnson’s other novels, and perhaps more: an interesting but futile guessing game results after a while. Is the missionary and aid worker Kathy Jones of Tree of Smoke the cynical, unnamed narrator of The Stars at Noon, Johnson’s moody novel of Nicaragua in the mid-1980s? And is the Englishman with whom that narrator becomes fatally entangled related, somehow, to Anders Pitchfork, the British ex-paratrooper who appears in Tree of Smoke? Even more interesting, perhaps: was Tree of Smoke the novel Johnson meant to give us in, say, 1980, but was bedeviled by for nearly three decades?
If so, it was worth the wait.
more from VQR here.