Spy tale a moral, reality check
By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser
By Christine Thomas
Alighting on the Mainland, the Philippines, Vietnam and Hawai'i, Denis Johnson's first full-length novel in nine years — and what a length at 600-plus pages — spans two decades in the lives of two young enlisted men and two CIA operatives. As the line between spy, friend, criminal and enemy becomes too sheer to discern and war, religion and myth spin into one, readers are transported to the edge of morality and reality.
Though foremost a story about Skip Sands, a likable third-year CIA operative from Kansas whose father was killed at Pearl Harbor, the novel opens unexpectedly after JFK's assassination when a young GI, Bill Houston, shoots a monkey in the Philippine jungle.
Powerful alone for its glimpse of humanity in the middle of war, Johnson's spare but potent description renders it unforgettable and sets the tone for the entire book: "As he held the animal in his hands, its heart stopped beating. He gave it a shake, but he knew it was useless. He felt as if everything was all his fault, and with no one around to know about it, he let himself cry like a child. He was eighteen years old."
Bill is just a fraction of the narrative reach, and in time he's joined by his equally coarse and hardened brother, James, who enters the Army at 17 with a forged birth certificate; Sands, who at the start of the war "considered both the Agency and his country to be glorious," and keeps panic at bay by focusing on the defeat of Communism; and his uncle, the colonel, a dynamic but protean leader described as "part joke, part sinister mystery," who is utterly obsessed with myth as the key element of psychological warfare.
Riveting momentum is unwaveringly sustained throughout, but readers must be alert to the trail of who's who and what's what in this broad yet contained landscape where society's rules have been upturned. The story never abandons its first character but darts between them all, even presenting scenes through at first seemingly peripheral individuals like mothers, other soldiers and Vietcong.
And though Bill Houston is difficult to connect with, his fate engenders compassion and one can't help but follow the trail of his life as closely as the others'. His 1966 Honolulu shore leave, where he's first instructed in island geography and then racial dynamics, will surely resonate with Hawai'i residents: "By 3:00 p.m. the pavement of Honolulu had baked so hot it sucked at his rubber shoe soles as he walked," to a shady bar, where a disabled veteran informs him: "Around here you got the Mokes and the Howlies. We are the howlies."
Beyond parallels in Johnson's story with today's "war on terror," above all his four narrative hubs offer disparate but linked perspectives of war — those on the front lines who feel wonderful only in the midst of violence and pain because it's the only time they feel alive, and those strategizing on the sideline, for whom, despite moments of doubt, war is their religion. They also illuminate its irony, where soldiers kill farmers but rescue puppies, and rape girls but steal medicine for orphans.
Read more of Christine Thomas' reviews at www.literarylotus.com.