The protagonist of Denis Johnson’s post-apocalyptic novel is the title character. Fiskadoro, a twelve-year-old boy, lives in a highly gendered segregated rural fishing town. Leaving home in search of an alternative, possibly utopian society, the boy’s adolescent longings are tied up with his desire to learn music, which he associates with magic, and to find his roots. In this regard, his searches for past and future prove inseparable. Mystical visions, cult brainwashing, and penile mutilation are only a few of his harrowing experiences before he finally returns home. His music education includes a debut performance with the symphony.
Anthony Cheung is a musician who also promotes science in Twicetown, the former Key West, Florida, where he lives. A clarinet player, he also tries to keep together the fragmented Miami Symphony Orchestra. He becomes Fiskadoro’s music teacher. With his science-oriented outlook, Cheung is both obsessed with and tends to reject spirituality. He looks forward to re-established contact outside the island’s quarantine zone, through a ship from Cuba.
Grandmother Wright, a former resident of Vietnam who survived the fall of Saigon, is Cheung’s grandmother. the primary guide to the past, both for the protagonist and the reader. Perhaps the world’s oldest person, she has also endured the supposed apocalypse, apparently caused by a nuclear attack. The grandmother does not speak, but the narrator provides her backstory and often her thoughts. Her endurance suggest hope for the future.
Cassius Clay Sugar Ray, a mixed-race African-European-American man, is a Muslim. He studies the history of nuclear warfare and tries to locate the sources of the hallucinogenic drugs that the swamp people used on Fiskadoro.
Belinda and Jimmy Hidalgo are Fiskadoro’s parents. Jimmy is presumed death after being lost at sea, which has left Belinda paralyzed from grief. She also has two other children. Belinda seeks solace in voodoo after being diagnosed with breast cancer, from which she dies.
Fiskadoro, the adolescent boy, nearly thirteen, is the central figure in the novel. His story, like many stories that focus on adolescents, is a rite of passage into awareness, a coming of age into a whole new way of life. Fiskadoro is a precocious boy who does not want to be like the other men in a village made up primarily of men who fish and of women who cook the fish that the men catch. Fiskadoro thus seeks out the help of Cheung, who agrees to teach him to play the clarinet. Fiskadoro believes that music will magically pour forth from his clarinet, but this is not the case until the end, the moment when Fiskadoro is reborn.
Fiskadoro’s passage into a heightened state of awareness takes him on a journey into the darkness of the swamps, where the Quraysh worship the incarnation of the god Mohammed, who has manifested himself in the guise of a two-headed snake. Among the Quraysh, Fiskadoro’s transformation from a boy into a man takes on both physical and symbolic implications. When he reappears later in his village, staggering and drugged, he is truly no longer “like other men.” His memory of who he is and where he has been has been completely erased. Fiskadoro is now history-less. He does not even remember his own mother. He is now ready for—and prepared to be born into—the future.
Grandmother Wright’s passage out of Vietnam in 1974 parallels Fiskadoro’s reawakening into a world that is hard to call his own. She has suffered through two major holocausts—the End of the World as well as Vietnam—yet amid this suffering she has still managed to live, to keep her eyes open to witness the coming of a new civilization as it washes in, “a ship or shape”—it is not known which—in the ghostly mist. Although Grandmother Wright refuses to speak, readers are granted access to...
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