Welcome to the jungle

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

At the end of Denis Johnson's 1983 novel, "Angels," a drifter named Bill Houston is led to the Arizona gas chamber, where he will die for having murdered a bank guard in a botched robbery. Bill is ex-Navy, a former sailor who never quite fit back into the civilian world. And yet, Johnson wants us to realize, even an existence this marginal comes bestowed with its own odd sort of grace.

"He was in the middle of taking the last breath of his life before he realized he was taking it," Johnson writes. "But it was all right. Boom! Unbelievable! And another coming? How many of these things do you mean to give away? He got right in the dark between heartbeats, and rested there. And then he saw that another one wasn't going to come. That's it. That's the last. He looked at the dark. I would like to take this opportunity, he said, to pray for another human being."

Bill is, in many ways, a quintessential Johnson figure, a three-dimensional embodiment of the tension that animates nearly all the author's writing: the tricky pull between the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane. He's not bad at heart, not exactly; perhaps a more accurate way of putting it is that standard considerations of good and evil do not apply.

For Johnson, the key is to think in terms of redemption, resurrection even, to look for the small flickers of awareness or transcendence that pierce the illusory distractions of the world. This is not the stuff of homilies, of easy faith or of a forgiving, tender-hearted god. "What a pair of lungs!" Johnson's visionary (or is he only drug-afflicted?) narrator exclaims, describing a woman's wail of grief in his best known (and, I think, finest) book, the 1992 story collection "Jesus' Son." "She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere."

This is writing that takes us right up to the edge and, indeed, beyond it, that casts us past the boundaries of ourselves. It's no coincidence that in Johnson's 1997 novel "Already Dead" (subtitled "A California Gothic"), a character named Carl Van Ness becomes convinced that his failed suicide attempts are actually successful; he is not so much surviving as cycling through a series of parallel lifetimes, parallel souls.

Johnson's new novel, "Tree of Smoke," his first book of fiction since 2000's "The Name of the World," is very much a saga trafficking in resurrection; it brings Bill Houston back to life. That's not to say it's other-worldly: The Houston we meet here is not a ghost but, rather, a prior incarnation, the Navy man from whom the character in "Angels" will emerge. He's not the centerpiece of the novel either but more a portal, a point of entry, a familiar face in an amorphous world.

Taking place in Southeast Asia -- Vietnam mostly -- during the period from 1963 to 1970, "Tree of Smoke" is a massive patchwork of people and stories that overlap and drift apart. Here, Johnson means to marry his sensibility to a more concrete political vision, using the war, and our chimerical objectives, as a way to address the unknowability of experience in the largest sense.

"What is this universe to God?" a Vietnamese priest wonders partway through the novel. "Is it a drama? Is it a dream? Perhaps a nightmare?" Such questions coalesce around the elusive Tree of Smoke, an intelligence operation involving a Viet Cong double agent, which is named for a passage in the Bible. "There shall be blood and fire and palm trees of smoke -- from Joel, wasn't it?" Johnson writes. "Incredible how the English came back. And the scripture, too, back from the darkness. Joel, yes, the second chapter, usually translated 'pillars of smoke,' but the original Hebrew said 'palm trees of smoke.' "

That's an essential passage, with its suggestion that language, meaning, even Holy Writ, are entirely conditional, that understanding is not available to us. All we have are our perceptions, which are flawed, uncertain, expressive of our failings and desires more than an accurate representation of what we see. To highlight this, Johnson immerses us in the story of CIA agent Skip Sands, nephew to Col. Francis Sands, himself a rogue intelligence officer operating in a territory of his own design. Moving back and forth from these characters to Bill Houston and his soldier brother James, Johnson attempts to offer a kaleidoscopic overview of a landscape in which necessity has boiled everything down to its essence, in which morality is overridden by survival and reality blurs into dream.

The people here are unmoored, ethically ambivalent, lost in the cosmos, detached from history, God, the world. And yet, their disassociation exposes them to a strange deliverance, albeit not in any way we might expect. "War is ninety percent myth anyway, isn't it?" the colonel asks Skip. "In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to the level of human sacrifice, don't we, and we constantly invoke our God. It's got to be about something bigger than dying, or we'd all turn deserter. I think we need to be much more conscious of that. I think we need to be invoking the other fellow's gods too."

What Johnson's getting at is a metaphysics of the battlefield, a psychic reckoning with Vietnam. Surprisingly, however, this is where "Tree of Smoke" breaks down. Part of the problem is, of course, the war itself, which has been portrayed and dissected so thoroughly that even those of us with no direct experience of it come to this novel with a store of images and memories embedded in our brains. Indeed, one extended sequence involving tunnel rats named Joker and Cowboy is reminiscent of "Full Metal Jacket," while other moments echo the hallucinatory intensity of Robert Stone's novel "Dog Soldiers" or the film "Apocalypse Now."

Why write about Vietnam at this point in history? Is there anything else that needs to be said? On the one hand, it appears, Johnson wants to use the war to comment on our involvement in Iraq -- "Shock and despair," he writes, in one telling reference -- but ultimately, that seems not ambiguous enough. No, for Johnson, Vietnam may best be read as an elaborate metaphor, less geopolitical than geo-spiritual, a zone in which we lost not just our innocence but our souls. That's a classic Johnson setup, but as "Tree of Smoke" progresses, it gets too diffuse, too sprawling, until we ourselves grow disconnected, detached, lost.

It's not that the book lacks a certain resolution; resolution, Johnson recognizes, is just another construct, and besides, we know what happens to Bill Houston anyway. More to the point, it's that the people here cannot collapse the distance between their inner and outer lives. Yes, they're tormented by the exigencies of combat, but Johnson has made a career of writing about people in extreme situations, and he excels at their complexities of character. "Tree of Smoke," however, lacks that laser sharpness, that ability to parse the distinctions between transcendence and despair. It never brings us close enough to believe that these characters matter, that there is something fundamental -- lives, souls, the question of deliverance -- at stake.

In some sense, you have to wonder if that's a consequence of the desire to produce an epic. "Tree of Smoke" is 614 pages long, and Johnson reportedly worked on it for two decades, which suggests an existential dilemma of its own. Yet in the end this is too easy, also; it's not the book's length that is the trouble but its approach.

"The jungle itself screamed like a mosque," Johnson writes late in the novel, describing a staged ritual in which a former psy-ops sergeant named Jimmy Storm plays a symbolic sacrifice. "Storm lay naked on his back and watched the upward-rushing mist and smoke in the colossal firelight and waited for the clear light, for the peaceful deities, the face of the father-mother, the light from the six worlds, the dawning of hell's smoky light and the white light of the second god, the hungry ghosts wandering in ravenous desire, the gods of knowledge and the wrathful gods, the judgment of the lord of death before the mirror of karma, the punishments of the demons, and the flight to refuge in the cave of the womb that would bear him back into this world."

It's beautiful writing: With Johnson, the writing is always beautiful. Still, for all that it hints at a reality in which physics and metaphysics blend together and we are transfigured by their proximity, mostly what we get here is a sense of being on the outside, which -- in Johnson's universe, anyway -- has never been enough. *

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