Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The things you can do with a prayer.

So now that things are slowing down and I'm getting well again, I can start picking up my books again. So after a good month's hiatus, I'm back into Tree of Smoke.

So far I've had mixed reactions to this book. Part of the reason it's taking me so long to get through is because it's a huge hardcover, and mostly I don't opt to carry it around with me, cutting down my reading time. But beyond that, it's also that it doesn't keep my attention as much as Harry Potter, which therefore means I don't feel pushed to carry it around either.

There are parts I really love. And then there are parts where I'm lost and confused. Times when I'm not sure what the agenda is (but then again, it does a good job of emulating the lostness of this war... an aimlessness). But because it's Denis Johnson, I keep going, and I'm rewarded for my diligence and patience.

For instance, I just read a beautiful section, a story told to Skip by an old woman about a mother and child waiting for a father that has gone to war. I won't relate the whole tale here, but it's on pages 330-332, and it is really a wonderful tale. A story like that reinvigorates my belief in Johnson, that he knows what he's doing.

And then there's this section that I just read that I think is a masterful little piece of writing, craftwise. I love the movement, the strategic choices that he makes (I'm always thinking strategy, thanks to my classes):

"Will you pray? Will you pray with me now, son?"

"Go ahead."

"Dear Lord, dear Redeemer, dear Father in Heaven," she said, and he removed the receiver from his ear thinking if the Holy Spirit ever came to South Vietnam, he'd probably get his balls shot off.

Over at the bar he saw men drinking whiskey from glasses with ice. An officer in fatigues stared down at his fingers while they shredded his cocktail napkin.

At this moment he thought suddenly of Sergeant Harmon:

Oh, my Lord. He wanted water.

"Son," his mother said, "are you still there?"

The dry, cracked lips - thirsty, parched. Signaling with his tongue.

"Thanks for the prayer, Ma," he said, and hung up the phone.

He tipped his beer and drank it away and sucked out every last drop. It was the best he'd ever tasted. The worst and the best.
--[Tree of Smoke, pg. 325]

I just really like how he moves through this. How so much happens in this moment while his mom is saying a prayer and he's not listening. You can visualize it, hear the static of his mom talking while he holds the phone away and watches the men in the bar. Watch his face change as he is reminded of the Sergeant. And then the way he sucks down his beer. I don't know, I thought it was so well done and affecting.

So the jury is still out on this. I think it's inconsistent -- I vacillate between indifference and then suddenly being really drawn into the characters and situations. I think I actually need to concentrate hard on this book otherwise I'm often in danger of daydreaming, and suddenly a page has happened and I wasn't even paying attention. But the parts that capture me, I really really appreciate and love and they make me smile. So I'm going to say that it's still worth it. It's just hard for a lazy reader like me to be patient sometimes.

More later.

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