(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Since the first explosions of the atomic bomb upon civilian populations during World War II, writers have been trying to imagine what it would be like if civilization, as we know it, were to end in a nuclear holocaust. From Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), to countless end-of-the-world motion pictures of the 1950’s and 1960’s, to the hysteria raised by the television production, in 1983, of The Day After, Americans have been fascinated and appalled by the imagined scene of the destruction of the human race, or its rebirth from the ashes of a final world war. The human interest in universal destruction is age-old, giving rise to a whole school of millennial studies. Perhaps the nuclear age is not the first to imagine the ways and means of its own end, but certainly it must be the first to perceive that end so closely and so literally.

Fiskadoro is the second novel by Denis Johnson, a young writer who began his career as a poet and whose first novel, Angels (1983), received the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In Fiskadoro, Johnson imagines a local, tribal culture flourishing in the Florida Keys some time after a nuclear war. The author suggests, through this portrayal, that a human culture can be reborn out of the wastes of war, but that—its history distorted and partially erased in the cataclysm—it may be destined to repeat the childhood of the race, with some crucial differences. Fiskadoro, in some respects, resembles an anthropologist’s report on a primitive society which, at times humorously, at times poignantly, maintains the vestiges of an advanced civilization without progress or efficiency.

Thus, the human characters who inhabit Johnson’s novel are caught between a dismembered past and the desire to rebuild a future world that would repudiate that past, but which, in fact, only parodically repeats it. While deflating the idea that the race might be saved by returning to its primal beginnings (the novel is filled with references to the practices of primitive cultures), Fiskadoro depicts in its protagonist the possibility of survival and renewal amid the most drastic present circumstances and the savagery of a tribal culture lost in its own myths and dreams. If history is a nightmare from which we cannot awaken, Johnson’s novel suggests that, at the end of history and in the face of death, ritual, dream, and myth may be the devices through which a new world recognizes its own awakening.

These concepts are typified in the character of Fiskadoro, a young man whose fisherman father dies at sea near the novel’s beginning and whose mother is destined to die from breast cancer at its end. Fiskadoro (a name that can mean harpooner) is a restless figure who is dissatisfied with the livelihood of his father and the repetitive boredom that pervades the survivalist society in which he grows up. Fiskadoro’s world is filled with a routine only occasionally interrupted by the appearance of a wandering mystic or a few survivors from outside the delimited realm of the Keys.

The principal means of communication outside everyday speech in Twice-town (so called because two missiles, which landed nearby during the holocaust, failed to explode) is the single radio station, Cubaradio, which plays badly dated records from the American 1960’s, repeats the same information endlessly, and is subject to infrequent takeovers by madmen and rebels of all stripes. Johnson, perhaps, is parodying the importance of rock music in contemporary culture by portraying Cubaradio’s listeners attempting to interpret the misunderstood lyrics of the 1960’s as the sayings of wise men from generations past. In a minor form of rebellion against society (adolescents do not seem to change, despite nuclear wars), Fiskadoro seeks out Mr. Cheung, who, as titular conductor of the newly formed Miami Symphony Orchestra, will teach Fiskadoro the classical clarinet. Fiskadoro wishes, thereby, to escape the confines of this comic parody of a new consumerist culture (the roads are filled with the stands of those attempting to sell the meaningless junk left over from the war) as well as the fishing boats he is destined to sail upon in his dead father’s place.

After his father’s death, Fiskadoro roams beaches inhabited by outcasts until he comes upon one Cassius Clay Sugar Ray, a shaman-storyteller who encourages the circle of boys listening to him to take control of their own lives. Fiskadoro takes the advice literally and pursues into the midst of the swamp people a woman he desires. Then, inexplicably, Fiskadoro disappears from the pages of the novel named after him, only to reappear several days later in his mother’s house in a state of shock and visited by strange, elaborate dreams. In these, Fiskadoro recalls the rite of bisection inflicted upon him by the swamp people—a rite whose enactment and surrounding legends formulates one of the central symbols of Fiskadoro. In the tribal culture of the swamp people, all males must undergo an initiation ceremony wherein the head of the penis is bisected. The purpose of the ceremony is explained to Fiskadoro in the form of a myth: The founding ancestor of the people (the Quraysh) enters the cave of Mohammed, there to finda two-headed...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Brians, Paul. Review of Fiskadoro, by Denis Johnson. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 42 (March, 1986): 50-53. In a discussion of several books that examine the threat or aftereffects of nuclear war, Brians praises Fiskadoro for its refusal to romanticize the “new primitive culture emerging out of the atomic ashes.” He notes the resurgence of interest in nuclear war fiction by “serious” contemporary writers and credits the “posture of the Reagan Administration” for producing such a strong response from writers who might not otherwise address the issue of nuclear war.

Corwin, Phillip. “Creating a New Form in Fiction.” Commonweal 112 (August 9, 1985): 444-445. Corwin considers Fiskadoro to be, despite its “grandiose pretensions,” one of the few works to rise up out of the doomed pessimism of most visionary novels. What distinguishes Fiskadoro is “an original, visceral prose style . . . that approaches the creation of a new form in fiction.” Johnson’s juxtaposition of the real and the surreal is judged to be the book’s lasting literary achievement.

Hoffman, Eva. “Postapocalypse Pastoral.” The New York Times Book Review 90 (May 26, 1985): 7. Hoffman’s review is a well-fashioned overview of a book that she believes “succeeds in everything but its subject.” Hoffman...

(The entire section is 449 words.)