Tuesday, September 29, 2009


This is a post-holocaust tale published in 1985, just before the end of the Cold War. It's a mythopeic and hallucinatory work that questions the nature of reality, especially when memory fades and history is lost.

Fiskadoro is a 12-year-old boy living near Key West, now renamed Twicetown after being hit by two missiles carrying nuclear warheads. The warheads were duds.

Life is simple and uncouth, facilitated by the forgiving climate, the sea loaded with fish, and the debris of a pre-holocaust world. People use odd names, like Flying Man and King David Rat, and speak a mangled patois: "All I own do is gepback home."

Woven into the narrative are several journeys, the most important of which are the first two:

1. Fiskadoro, an Orpheus-like figure, is being taught how to how to play the clarinet by Mr. Cheung. He's captured by swamp-people who erase, among other things, his memory.

2. Mr. Cheung's grandmother was one of the last people to escape from Saigon before it fell to Communist forces. Now she is scarcely cognizant of her surroundings. Her long ordeal is described in detail.

3. Mr. Cheung himself travels to another island in pursuit of knowledge--a book that will explain the nuclear holocaust. He "believed in the importance of remembering."

4. Mr. Cheung's half-brother is "a famous, almost legendary figure" whose current name is Cassius Clay Sugar Ray. He recounts an odyssey to the mainland where he and his shipmates are captured by gamblers. He wants to obtain the drug used by the swamp-people to obliterate memories.

Fiskadoro is not a slice of sci-fi. It is a gritty surrealistic tale, closer to a novel like Fishboy by Mark Richard than McCarthy's The Road or Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

The author, Denis Johnson, is an award-winning poet and novelist. Some of his other novels are Already Dead, Recusitation of a Hanged Man, and Tree of Smoke.

Fiskadoro had nothing against the grandmother except that the whole time she sat there, every time, she smoked a long cigarillo backward, with the lit end resting in her mouth and the spit dripping down to darken the other end, the end she should have been smoking. Maybe this was how they smoked their cigarets in the old days...