Compelling. I had to read it to the end, though I’m not sure I actually made sense of it. The main character is Skip Sands, a good American boy who follows his dead father’s brother (“the Colonel, Francis Xavier Sands) into the CIA and into PsyOps. After getting his feet wet in southeast Asia with the Colonel’s operations in the Philippines, Skip, something of a linguist, goes to Monterrey to learn Vietnamese in preparation for going to Vietnam. But he’s not the CIA type. He’s more of a scholar who tackles new languages with gusto and, stationed in the home of a dead French eye doctor, spends his time reading and studying in his library. Neither action nor deception come naturally to him. He’s, moreover, idealistic, hooked on the idea of “serving his country” as did his father who died at Pearl Harbor and his uncle. He always wants to “know the truth” and doesn’t take naturally to the Colonel’s sense that loyalty (to one’s buddies, one’s unit, one’s leader) is the primary virtue.
The Colonel is a CIA operative turned rogue. His plan (named “tree of smoke” from several Old Testament passages) is to run a double agent back into North Vietnam, convincing the leadership that the US plans a nuclear attack. One review was entitled “Bright Shining Lie” and while it didn’t reference Neil Sheehan’s famous book, my first thought when I met “the Colonel” of Johnson’s novel was Sheehan’s version of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Van, an outspoken army field adviser who criticized the way the war was being waged, ignored his superiors and leaked his pessimistic assessments to the U.S. press corps in Saigon.
In Viet Nam, Johnson’s Colonel Sands dies before his plan becomes operational, dies but no one ever knows definitively how or why. Many assume he’s still alive in hiding somewhere; others assume the CIA killed him off. From the first when a priest is assassinated in the Philippines, it’s clear that Skip is not the man to deal with the Colonel’s PsyOps programs. The Colonel has supposedly chosen him because he’s family and will be loyal. He doesn’t understand Skip any more than Skip understands the Colonel. There’s a girl too. Kathy Jones. A Canadian who comes to southeast Asia with her Seventh Day Adventist husband who dies in the Philippines, she stays on as a nurse and then in programs to adopt children out of the area. Overworked with practically no support she’s alternatively ultra religious and ultra skeptical. She and Skip have a brief affair. She writes to him at the language school and he ignores her letters; in the end he writes to her and says he loved her and missed his chance.
Two other Americans are the Houston brothers, Bill and James, a sailor and a soldier who seem to represent the kind of recruits who didn’t die in southeast Asia, but who learned how to become savage. There seems no redemption for them; they return home to end up rootless, in and out of jail. Kathy barely survives a plane crash (with a load of orphans) and ends up crippled in mind and body. Skip's fate is the worst.
The plot of this novel is elliptical and tortured. Critics see an analogy between it and the labyrinthine Viet Cong tunnels that figured prominently in that war. The writing is occasionally brilliant and moving, but mostly not.