I started this monster of a novel back in January and made it through 300 pages before losing stamina. I'm glad I returned to read the second half. It's hard work but well worth struggling with. The story begins in the Philippines in 1963, the day after the Kennedy assassination, and closes 20 years later in Minneapolis. In between, the novel's many characters have been through the Vietnam war and, mostly, ended up in a bad way.
At the centre of the book is Skip Sands, a CIA agent working for his uncle, the Colonel, a slightly barmy figure who is working on a vague plan involving double agents. Sands spends his days holed-up in various remote houses, sorting the Colonel’s chaotic index cards and, briefly, has an affair with a recently-widowed Canadian nurse named Kathy.
Elsewhere, brothers Bill and James Houston, one serving in the navy, the other in the army, are closer to the action, while two Vietnamese men - one a South Vietnamese pilot, the other a North Vietnamese spy - have their loyalties tested by the Americans.
There are numerous other characters who drift in and out of the narrative, which is complex, meandering and frequently confusing.
Johnson is a phenomenal writer, fresh and illuminating, but the book is often frustrating. There are gripping, emotionally gruelling set-pieces all the way through but in between the pace slows down to a crawl. It can be hard to tell what’s happening in some scenes and what their relevance is to the broader narrative.
The strongest section of the book plunges us into the thick of the Tet Offensive. It’s a 65-page microcosm of all that’s great about the book: pin-sharp description, dazzling language and an almost poetic distillation of the horrors of war.
But this is too big a book to just be about how horrible war is. We know that, after all. Johnson is after something deeper. Loyalty is a prominent theme here, as is the notion of truth. Everyone is lying all the time, Trung, the North Vietnamese agent, tells himself.
Fatherhood is significant too but it’s hard to say why. The book is filled with dead, dying or absent fathers. Is Johnson saying that, robbed of their fathers, children fall into violence, corruption and disorder? Is Kennedy, whose death kicks off the story and arguably condemns America to war, the absent father of the nation?
It’s a monumental work, almost literally, and a challenging one.