The novel Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson follows a group of survivors living in the aftermath of nuclear war. It is an experimental and poetic science fiction work, drawing on a number of different cultural and literary influences. Among the ruins, the survivors seek to rebuild their lives and navigate their complex relationships with both the past and the present.
The novel presents America's mainland as a place decimated by nuclear war. As Richard Eder (1985) notes, Fiskadoro uses its apocalyptic setting to replant "a marooned bit of humanity as if it were a cutting, and recounts the old traits and the new ones that sprout from it."
Fiskadoro's characters form a makeshift, ethnically diverse community based in Key West, Florida (referred to as Twicetown). This community is a mixture of white, black, and Latino people whose use of language has strong Spanish influences. They scrape by in their apocalyptic surroundings by completing tasks like gardening, fishing, and creating crafts. These characters live under a quarantine enforced by societies unharmed by the nuclear catastrophe, such as Cuba. Cuba, as it is presented in Fiskadoro, is under the rule of a regime that draws on the Koran to shape its ideology. Some of the other groups that feature in Fiskadoro are a band of mutants referred to as Los Desechados and a swamp-dwelling community who worship a two-headed snake totem with frightening intensity.
There are three primary characters depicted in the novel. Anthony Cheung is one of these characters. A gardener and musician, Cheung does not recall the days before the world fell apart, but he feels drawn to trying to salvage remnants of this past all the same. For example, he finds comfort in reciting passages from the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. He lives with his Vietnamese refugee grandmother, another important character in the novel. She remembers her life before the nuclear war in detail. Unfortunately, she doesn't possess the ability to speak, so she cannot share her precious knowledge and memories with her grandson.
One of the book's other primary characters is named Fiskadoro, and he is the son of a fisherman. Cheung tries unsuccessfully to teach Fiskadoro how to play the clarinet. Fiskadoro is a restless figure, never really fitting in with those he lives amongst. He suffers terribly when he's captured by the swamp-dwelling community, forced to consume drugs, and physically tortured through ritual mutilation of his penis. Upon his return to his original community, Cheung tries to teach him to play the clarinet once more. This time, Fiskadoro takes to the instrument with ease. In contrast to Cheung, Fiskadoro is indifferent to learning about, or remembering the past (including figures from his past like his family and Cheung). Christopher Nank sees Fiskadoro as representing a:
"new archetypal 'American' character, not anchored to or influenced by any of his narrative ancestors...He is completely untroubled by this lack of a heritage or connection to the past" (2014: 117).
In Fiskadoro, Denis Johnson, a poet-novelist whose apocalyptic impulse is the driving force behind much of his work, propels readers forward into a cosmos born out of the ashes of a nuclear holocaust. He brilliantly imagines a world cut off from all that remains elsewhere, a present disconnected from its past. This is a world ruled by new religions, where Quonset huts sit beside the burned-out husks of automobiles. This is a landscape scarred by fire, contaminated by radioactive waste. This is “a place ignored by authority,” a society of bizarre body-maiming rituals, a culture where the god Jesus, the god Quetzalcoatl, and the god Bob Marley join hands to form a hybrid holy trinity. This is a Key West of the waking dead.
The book begins in the present tense, narrated by an unnamed first-person narrator who is looking back on “a time between civilizations” from a futuristic perspective, a telling that attempts to retrieve a lost...
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