(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 chapter in the history of the world. The point of view soon shifts to a third-person omniscience that moves almost dreamily into the eyes and minds of the three main characters: Fiskadoro, A. T. Cheung, and the ancestral Grandmother Wright.

Fiskadoro appears carrying a briefcase, the contents of which include the pieces of a disassembled clarinet. The relationship between Fiskadoro and his musician-mentor Cheung is forged at this moment. Fiskadoro has sought out Cheung in order to learn how to play the clarinet—that magical, mysterious metal contraption passed onto him from a long line of Hidalgo fathers and sons. As director and member of a rag-tag group of musicians who call themselves the Miami Symphony Orchestra, Cheung is immediately drawn to Fiskadoro. He soon steps in and becomes a...

(The entire section is 718 words.)