Posted by: Sally Ingraham | September 11, 2009


by Denis Johnson

I picked this book up at my library’s huge August book sale because of this blurb on the back:

“Wildly ambitious…the sort of book that a young Herman Melville might have written had he lived today and studied such disparate works as the Bible, ‘The Waste Land’, Fahrenheit 451 and Dog Soldiers, screened Star Wars and Apocalypse Now several times, dropped a lot of acid and listened to hours of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones…Its strange, hallucinatory vision of America and modern history is never less than compelling.” – The New York Times

Sounds weirdly fun, right? And it is, but there’s a whole lot about the book that is frightening too. The story is set in a time after the end of the world, in a place that used to be the Florida Keys. 60 years ago a nuclear battle destroyed pretty much the rest of the planet, except perhaps Cuba. In Twicetown (formerly Key West,) a town saved twice from obliteration, there is only one woman who remembers the world that existed before, and she’s so old that she no longer speaks. Strange multi-racial tribal-type groups have constructed a primitive type of civilization, returning to a more basic variety of human occupation: fishing, bartering, smoking, drinking, forming families, and finding comfort in fire-lit parties and music. One of the most interesting details of the book is the presence of an odd hybrid language that is spoken by the majority of the characters – a mixture of English and Spanish with a distorted syntax.

The book begins by introducing the character of Mr. Cheung, a man who plays the clarinet and is a member of a knowledge seeking society, and who believes in the importance of remembering. At his doorstep a boy appears – Fiskadoro – who has a clarinet of his own and who wishes to learn to play it. He comes from the beach community of Army. The book meanders from there, following Fiskadoro home and introducing his mother Bertha, then wandering into the memories of Mr. Cheung’s grandmother, walking with Mr. Cheung to orchestra practice, pausing to listen to a story told by Cassius Clay Sugar Ray (a trader), going to watch the dreadlocked Israelites who arrived in a mysterious boat build another boat… Time passes. Fiskadoro disappears for awhile, caught by the swamp people and forced to undergo a ceremony that wipes his memory clean of anything beyond his name. Jimi Hendrix music comes in over the radio from a station somewhere in Cuba, and everyone begins to hope that the Quarantine will end soon.

There is a dream-like feeling to this book, or rather I felt caught in a dream while I read it – the kind where many things are familiar but just enough is off about it that you are restless and worried. The idea that the loss of knowledge could be so rapid was frightening to me. How, after all, do we gain knowledge – cultural knowledge, academic knowledge? If all the books and records are destroyed and there is no one left who remembers and can pass knowledge on, I guess it would disappear. How important is it really, in the scope of things? The balance of Mr. Cheung against the majority of the other people left in his world provides an interesting contrast. He needs to be able to recite the Declaration of Independence, he seeks out what few books are left and reads them. He tries to use knowledge to make sense out of the nightmare he finds himself in, but I think knowledge in and of itself isn’t enough. Remembering the past, for Mr. Cheung, can’t save him from the present.

I’m pretty sure that the parallel idea of the world being wiped clean almost entirely, and Fiskadoro’s memory being lost almost entirely is significant. Mr. Cheung makes an effort to help Fiskadoro remember his former self and life, but Fiskadoro keeps insisting that he is himself, he is himself right now as much as he ever was. He doesn’t feel as though he has lost a part of himself. Could the same be true of the world? On many levels the population has just begun again, using the debris from the old world, the scraps of knowledge left over, to form new ideas, new religions, new ways of existing. Johnson seems to be making a statement, or perhaps just an observation, about how history repeats itself, even after the last seemingly ultimate disaster.

There are a whole lot of ideas, many of them that disturbed me, in this book. The possibility that it could all really happen made me intensely uncomfortable at times. Yet in a weird way it’s a hopeful book. And the writing is wonderful! That’s really what caught and held me. The dialogue was mesmerizing, and the overall rhythm of the book was strong and flowing.

I liked it, definitely. I would say that I am new to the genre, if there is one, of post-apocalyptic literature. It is an interesting topic, and one I want to explore a little more. But gradually. Just a little doom and gloom at a time, right? Is there anything specific that I should read, the real classics of the genre? I think I’ll also look for Johnson’s first book, titled Angels. His poetry might also be worthwhile. Always so many threads to follow. 🙂


  1. It’s not exactly a society-rebuilding-itself theme, but EL Fay just wrote a series of reviews of post-apocalyptic novels that sounded really interesting. In particular, I thought Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work sounded pretty fascinating (she also gives a brief run-down of some other “last man” novels in that post).

    Anyway, intriguing review! And intriguing dichotomy between selves-as-what-we-are and selves-as-what-we know. Thanks!

  2. A very thoughtful review — thanks! I’ve read Fiskadoro twice so far, and will probably read it again.

    Anything by Denis Johnson is definitely worth reading. Along with Angels and his poetry (look up the collection, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly), you would probably like Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond, a collection of his journalism articles.

    Another more recent doomsday book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

  3. Emily – Thanks for the tip! “Night Work” does sound interesting, and EL Fay’s blog went directly into my Google Reader! 🙂

    Leila – Thanks for the recommendations. Johnson’s prose was lovely, so I’m definitely looking forward to tracking down his poetry. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Oh wow, this sounds awesome! That New York Times quote alone would recommend this book to me (I LOVE “The Waste Land”) but your review is excellent. I’ll definitely add Fiskadoro to my TBR list.

    Unmainstream Mom Reads reviews lot of post-apocalyptic books. So that’s a blog to check out if you’re interested in this genre.

  5. EL Fay – I’ll check Unmainstream Mom Reads out – thanks very much for the tip.

  6. […] encounter with the author, Denis Johnson, was through the bizarre and amazing Fiskadoro, which I read in September. It had depth and breadth and strange landscapes and beautiful writing. Even though I […]

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