“The boy said, ‘It ain’t no different than shooting a deer.’

‘When did you ever shoot a deer?’

‘I guess I had it mixed up with the movies. But this was just–bing. And now it’s over.’

‘It don’t sound like it’s over, Tommy.’”

— Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke


“I’m thinking about the deer. Going to ‘Nam. I like the trees, you know? I like the way that the trees are on the mountains, all the different…the way the trees are.”

— Nick, The Deer Hunter


National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke and multi-award-winning movie The Deer Hunter share the glaringly obvious premise of the Vietnam War experience. But that’s not all they share.

These two are the epic slow play. Everything is on a grand scale, including character development. Both are incredibly lengthy, but with a slow buildup that’s worth your time because there’s precise intentionality behind the pace.

This pairing explores:

  • Avoidance at its both literal and metaphorical peak
  • How most of war is not actually the war part at all
  • Many losses in translation
  • Longing for simplicity while making everything more complicated
  • Plentiful quiet moments that create intense contrast
  • The danger in conflating sports with battles
  • Conflicted personal relationships as much more crucial than murderous, soldierly ones
  • Mountains as places to hide from harm and reveal a more authentic self
  • Warped paradigms of home, authority, enculturation, and sacrifice until all becomes like the muddy Vietnamese soil


I’m going to lay it down for you here and just say that Johnson’s book is what you wanted Catch-22 to be (except featuring a different war).

This pairing paradoxically shows where language fails us through the use of artful language. How surviving “swaths of desolation” often isn’t really surviving at all (Johnson, p. 247). And how metaphysical infiltrations are much more harmful than the physical ones. So clear your schedule for the next few weeks and dig in. It’s going to be challenging but worth the effort.