Late in Denis Johnson’s novel, one of his many defeated, aimless characters, Bill Houston, surveys what Johnson elsewhere calls “the cancelled life”:
He’d lived almost twenty-five years, his hardships colored in his own mind as youthful adventures, someday to be followed by a period of intense self-betterment, then accomplishment and ease. But this morning in particular he felt like a man overboard far from any harbor, keeping afloat only for the sake of it, waiting for his strength to give out. When would he strike out for shore? When would he receive the gift of desperation?
Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award for fiction, is a searing vision of a world without shores.