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MELISSSA BLOCK, host:

Denis Johnson's new novel, "Tree of Smoke," is one of the fall season's big books in a number of ways. It tells the story of U.S. covert operations in Southeast Asia and a CIA agent whose career grows with the Vietnam War. The novel is more than 600 pages long.

Alan Cheuse is going to review it for us in 102 seconds.

ALAN CHEUSE: "Tree of Smoke" opens in November of 1963, as the news of the assassination of President John Kennedy races around the world. The effect on CIA operative, Skip Sands - a young spook in the war against communism -reverberates throughout the story of his rise and fall.

Sands, a soft-spoken guy with a flattop who eventually grows a lush mustache, has Midwestern roots and a Boston-Irish family. He's drawn into company work by his larger-than-life uncle, the myth-making colonel, a legendary World War II Pacific theater hero, who struts about Southeast Asia, ferreting out the communistic enemy.

With that backdrop and the slender threads that hold together his wispy soul, Sands seems quite the paradigmatic spy - now we see him, now we don't - as the narrative weaves in and around several other characters. Kathy Jones, the missionary paramedic who finds her own soul in perpetual crisis after the death of her Bible-thumping husband. Nguyen Hao, a South Vietnamese operative for the American spies. Trung Than, his Viet Cong friend. And Bill and James Houston, two rowdy, essentially fatherless American brothers whose service in Vietnam gives Denis Johnson the opportunity to create a full and bloody portrait of the war, full of destruction, rape and pillaging and some ironically beautiful sunsets.

The breadth and length of this book requires some patience. But for a reader with stamina, the rewards come steadily. Johnson is a fine stylist of the world of soulful disaster. The phrase tree of smoke, as he presents it, is the literal translation from the Hebrew of the pillar in Exodus. This time - in these pages - that pillar of smoke leads us to a dark, dark vision of a promised land.

BLOCK: The novel is "Tree of Smoke" by Denis Johnson. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. And his latest work of fiction - out this month - is called "The Fires."

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