Atlantic Monthly Tree of Smoke Review

I was surprised to read BR Myers review of Denis Johnsons latest novel in the Atlantic. I cannot comment on the accuracy nor can I refute any points Myers makes because I am only around a hundred or so pages in to the book.

Myers writes: “When a novel’s first words are “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed,” and the rest of it evinces no more feel for the English language and often a good deal less, and America’s most revered living writer touts “prose of amazing power and stylishness” on the back cover, and reviewers agree that whatever may be wrong with the book, there’s no faulting its finely crafted sentences—when I see all this, I begin to smell a rat. Nothing sinister, mind you. It’s just that once we Americans have ushered a writer into the contemporary pantheon, we will lie to ourselves to keep him there.”

Ouch! I mean not only is Myers attacking the book–and I didn’t think the article was that persuasive in its critique–but Myers also attacks Phillip Roth’s and Jonathon Franzen’s blurbs.

He writes: “The “application of word to thing” has been rotting for some time now, and in the very terms described. The social and political consequences are all around us. Literati who contribute to the rot—whether to preserve a writer’s reputation, to stimulate the book market, or simply to go with the flow—have no right to complain about incoherent government. The next time they want to praise a bad book, they should rave about the plot instead.”

So it seems his criticism is of those who praise Johnson and do not criticize the book’s form and plot. There is even a funny cartoon lampooning Johnson’s characters from the book like a political cartoon. Now, again, I have not read all of the book. I do think, though, that Johnson is not as strong with longer narratives than he is with sprinting but Myers admits to only reading one book from Johnson and that book is Tree of Smoke. So, since I have read all of Johnson’s 15 books–the poetry and the non-fiction as well as the fiction, I do agree with the blurbs. Johnson’s voice and sensibility is noteworthy. I read him for the craft so I guess I am saying he is a writer’s writer. But I don’t believe Roth and Franzen are bad readers; I don’t believe I am a bad reader.

And yet Myers calls Franzen a lunatic and writes Roth should “know better.”

Again, ouch! And I assume I should wait until I finish the book before going further with my defense. But so far I am engaged and entertained as the Vietnam War is something I am interested in and I am enjoying how Johnson brings Vietnamese perspectives into the story–something Tobias Wolf in his non-fiction does not do and something Nicholas Delbanco never did. But, again, I am not done and should wait and hold my judgment..

Date Fail:
I just read the correct date on this article. It was not published in the Dec 2008 issue of the Atlantic but rather the 2007 issue. I am right on the cutting edge of what’s going on, you know.

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john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo’s debut story collection The House of Order was named a 2013 Int’l Latino Book Award Finalist, and his most recent work Little Mocos is now available from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. He is currently a professor of composition and literature at Lincoln Land College-Springfield, Illinois.

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