In the post-apocalyptic island society that Denis Johnson depicts, the idea that civilization is fragile is a dominant theme. When a nuclear incident separated a Florida island, Twicetown (Key West) from the mainland United States, the bonds of society were quickly frayed. The tenacious hold of mythology is another theme, both through the old people’s stories and the swamp people’s tales and rituals. Perhaps most important, the theme of the redemptive power of creativity guides Fiskadoro’s progress. Learning to play as well as appreciate music becomes an extended metaphor for his coming of age as he leaves home, endures various travails, and returns home transformed.
The people of Twicetown are technically quarantined, rather than totally abandoned, by the rest of America after the nuclear accident. To them, however, their responsibility to continue a viable way of life is entirely a matter of self-reliance. Their opportunities are severely constrained, however, by the tiny island on which they live. Johnson shows a society that has largely reverted to pre-industrial social and economic patterns, which he associates with a strict gender division of labor. Anthony Cheung resists the impulse to forget and simplify, however. He functions both as a historian who, by himself and with his ancient grandmother’s help, prevents history from totally slipping away. More importantly, in relation to Fiskadoro, he inspires and motivates the motley crew of musicians who form a self-styled symphony orchestra. By teaching Fiskadoro to play the clarinet, he establishes a mentor relationship that is important after the boy’s father dies and proves valuable when he is caught up in a mystical sect.
Both through the speechless grandmother and the swamp dwellers’ elaborate myth cycles, Johnson addresses the power of the word and of those who provide its continuity. The swamp sect’s danger, however, lies in its distorted view of the past, requiring the initiant’s blind obedience and physical mutilation to become a full group member. As Fiskadoro is drawn into but then escapes the cult’s pull, he comes into his own guardedly optimistic vision of a viable future.
When Fiskadoro returns to his village, unable to remember, it is as if he is starting life brand new, like a baby. Being thus born again, Johnson suggests, is the first step toward the possibility of living, not merely surviving, in this world and in worlds to come. Fiskadoro is the future. In a world born out of the contaminated ashes of a nuclear apocalypse—an apocalypse that mirrors Fiskadoro’s own self-mutilation—history loses its importance, its hold over the living. As Grandmother Wright’s silence quietly articulates, remembering does nothing but render one speechless and static in the presence of unspeakable events.
The events that give rise to the novel are also left unspeakable, as if Johnson simply was not interested in the details, the political framework, leading up to the End of the World, but rather in what rises out of this horrific end. The...
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- Critical Essays