Zachary Lazar is the author of Sway.
I have mixed feelings about the best new book I read this year, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which just won the National Book Award. The novel reminded me at different times of Apocalypse Now, Dr. Strangelove, Ecclesiastes, and Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Four hundred pages in, I still wasn’t sure what Johnson’s intentions were, whether the book was important or just exhaustive, though the dialogue is the best I’ve read in some time and Johnson’s expressionistic blend of horror and beauty makes for dozens of memorable descriptions, blackly funny and cosmic (even when he’s describing bowling). Its sinister intensity links it in my mind to my current obsession with the novels Democracy and The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion, who was also honored – again – with a National Book Award this year. Didion does more in two hundred pages than most writers manage in three times that many. Even more pithy, and more apocalyptic, is my other current obsession, the poet Frederick Seidel, whose newest book, last year’s Ooga-Booga, makes “The Waste Land” seem like the sweetly optimistic work of a kindlier era. I read it whenever I’m feeling depressed about anything, and the sheer evil candor of it works for me like Prozac is supposed to.