Fiskadoro, Johnson’s second novel, appeared in 1985, a year several other books about nuclear war by such established writers as Kurt Vonnegut and Tim O’Brien were also published. Johnson, whose debut novel, Angels, is firmly rooted in the real world—an America of prisons and bus stops, junkies and thieves—took a chance by choosing to follow up with what some critics would consider a work of science fiction. Fiskadoro, however, is a novel that transcends simple genre limitations, a book in which Johnson explores several themes that continue to recur in both his fiction and poetry: the role of forgiveness, salvation, redemption, the powers of grace. Fiskadoro is somewhat weighed down by its lofty, postapocalyptic dimensions, and for this reason, it is Johnson’s least accessible work.
Johnson himself admits he is “not completely happy” with Fiskadoro; he has called the novel “too scattered.” Yet the book, despite its shortcomings, is by no means a failure. Johnson’s body of work—including several novels, the collection of stories Jesus’ Son (1992), and books of poetry including The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems (a 1982 National Poetry Series Selection) and The Veil (1987)—is as impressive as that of any writer of his generation. It seems possible, even, that Fiskadoro might be read in a distant future as a historical artifact—a leftover piece of history—from a civilization whose ancestors were stupid enough to build atomic bombs.