Tree of Smoke

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Tree of Smoke
First edition cover
AuthorDenis Johnson
CountryUnited States
PublisherFarrar, Straus & Giroux
Publication date
September 4, 2007
Media typePrint

Tree of Smoke is a 2007 novel by American author Denis Johnson which won the National Book Award for Fiction[1][2] and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.[3] It is about a man named Skip Sands who joins the CIA in 1965, and begins working in Vietnam during the American involvement there. The time frame of the novel is from 1963 to 1970, with a coda set in 1983. One of the protagonists of Tree of Smoke is Bill Houston, who was the main character in Johnson's 1983 debut novel Angels.

There are several references in the novel to the title phrase, which has Biblical origins in three cited passages: Song of Solomon 3:6; Book of Joel 2:30, 31; and Exodus 33:9, 10.


Johnson's novel revolves around the associations and interactions with Francis X. Sands, a retired Air Force colonel and war hero, now a CIA official in Southeast Asia. The story is told primarily from the point of view of his nephew, William "Skip" Sands; Infantry Private James Houston and his brother Bill; and Kathy Jones, a Canadian NGO worker. The plot also includes minor but important characters Major Eddie Aguinaldo, a Filipino army officer; Nguyen Hao and his nephew Minh who work for Colonel Sands; Trung Than, Nguyen Hao's Vietcong friend turned double agent; Sergeant Jimmy Storm, a henchman of the Colonel; and a German assassin named Dietrich Fest.


  • Colonel Francis X. Sands – Retired Air Force colonel and war hero. Uncle of Skip Sands and head of Psy Ops for the CIA in Southeast Asia.
  • William Skip Sands – CIA officer in Philippines and Vietnam who works under his uncle's tutelage.
  • Kathy Jones – Canadian NGO worker in the Philippines and Vietnam.
  • James Houston – Marine private in Vietnam. Although not technically under the command of Colonel Sands, he is a member of Echo Reconnaissance of Delta company which is under the direction of Psy Ops.
  • Bill Houston – Brother of James Houston who initially serves in the Navy.
  • Burris – Youngest brother of James and Bill Houston
  • Sergeant Jimmy Storm – Operative for Colonel Sands in Psy Ops.
  • Nguyen Hao – Vietnamese businessman serving as driver and operative for Colonel Sands.
  • Minh – Nephew of Nguyen and helicopter pilot in the Vietnamese air force but works more directly for Colonel Sands.
  • Kim Hao – Wife of Nguyen Hao.
  • Thu – Nephew of Nguyen Hao and brother of Minh who kills himself by self-immolation.
  • Trung Than – Childhood friend of Nguyen Hao who is a member of the Vietcong but with the help of Nguyen agrees to become a double agent.
  • Sergeant Harmon – Commander of James Houston in Cao Phuc who is badly wounded in a firefight.
  • Dietrich Fest – German assassin who kills Father Carignan and later attempts to kill Trung Than.
  • Father Carignan – Priest in Manilla who is assassinated for allegedly running guns for the communists.


Reviews of the book have been mostly favorable. Tree of Smoke was swiftly cited as one of the Best Books of 2007 by The New York Times, whose reviewer, Jim Lewis, called the book "a massive thing and something like a masterpiece".[4] Time magazine's Lev Grossman named it one of the Top 10 Fiction Books of 2007, ranking it at #5. Grossman praised the book as "the most ambitious novel of the year, and one of the greatest."[5] B.R. Myers, in The Atlantic wrote a highly critical review of both the book and its author, opining that "once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there."

Tree of Smoke won the U.S. National Book Award[1][2] and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.[3]


  1. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 2007". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
    (With interview, acceptance speech by Johnson, essay by Matthew Pitt from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog, and other material linked to Johnson's name.)
  2. ^ a b Thompson, Bob (2007-11-15). "Johnson's 'Tree of Smoke' Wins National Book Award". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-11-15.
  3. ^ a b "Fiction". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
  4. ^ Jim Lewis, "The Revelator,", New York Times, September 2, 2007.
  5. ^ Lev Grossman, "Top 10 Fiction Books," Time, December 24, 2007, pp. 44–45.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
The Echo Maker
Richard Powers
National Book Award for Fiction
Succeeded by
Shadow Country
Peter Matthiessen