Rediscover: Tree of Smoke

Author, poet, playwright and journalist Denis Johnson, whose fiction delved into the tumultuous, sometimes transcendent lives of outcasts and addicts, died last month at age 67. Johnson earned widespread recognition with his 1992 short story collection Jesus' Son, 11 tales of petty crime, murder and drug abuse by addicts in rural America. Though Johnson published a poetry collection at age 19, he spent much of his 20s addicted to drugs and alcohol. His first year of sobriety marked the release of his debut novel, Angels (1983), in which a runaway mother of two and an ex-Navy sailor tour the downtrodden fringes of American society after they meet on a Greyhound bus.

Johnson's 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It follows Skip Sands, a CIA psychological operations officer working against the Viet Cong, and is set between 1963 and 1970. In the book, Johnson weaves a disparate cast of often tragic characters into a baroque epic of cruelty, chaos and scarred people. Tree of Smoke also explores the background of Bill Houston, the former sailor from Angels. It was released in paperback by Picador in 2008 ($22, 9780312427740). Johnson's final book, a short story collection titled The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, will be published by Random House in 2018. --Tobias Mutter

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