Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson

Hey, everybody, Kim is a bit under the weather this week so we decided to have me go two weeks in a row. Don’t worry, though, she’ll be back taking the next two weeks so you’ll see her reviews again soon. Today? Fiskadoro!


I had an interesting experience taking a look at Fiskadoro. To be honest, I hadn’t even looked at what the book was supposed to be about before reading. My copy didn’t even have a summary on the back. I guess you were just already supposed to have heard, though I hadn’t.

Regardless, being familiar with Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke, Train Dreams, and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, I saw that there was a Denis Johnson book listed in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books and jumped at it. You can imagine my surprise when I found a post-nuclear holocaust novel set in Key West.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for T.C. Boyle.)

To be honest, not having heard anything about Fiskadoro before getting started, not even having read a summary, I wasn’t sure I was dealing with a post-nuclear holocaust when I started reading. At first it could have just been a poverty-stricken area of Key West. To be honest, I don’t know much about Key West.

Eventually I became sure:

But this afternoon the Declaration only seemed to rouse his feeling, and now he wasn’t telling them the Declaration anymore–he was complaining about names again. “You know Mrs. Castanette in our orchestra? She only calls herself that because she plays the castanets. It is a fact that her name is Margaret Swanson. But her husband now calls himself Swanson-Johnson. They don’t see how they themselves are the ones who–who mangle the way of things.” He moved his hands as if gnarling up a bunch of string. “In the time when it was cold, we, my family, we burned out copy of the Constitution to get the fire going one day. Everybody was in despair, the children were coming out crooked, every tide left dead poison fish, nobody put out the boats, nobody could get together and say, Let’s keep the fires going in our stoves–I remember this, my father told me and I remember a little bit.

Really, it’s a strange little world down there in Key West. The title character is the son of a fisherman. He has a clarinet that has been handed down from somewhere and seeks lessons from Mr. Cheung, the speaker in the section quoted above. Cheung runs some kind of rag-tag orchestra, though they have never played. He remembers things from before, but clearly not enough. Cheung’s grandmother, who should remember all of what humanity had been through as she goes as far back to having escaped the fall of Saigon as a young woman, appears to have dementia and is barely aware anymore of where she is. In all of this, Fiskadoro wanders off and is captured by some nearby swamp people.

Of course, the outside world is not entirely gone. Radio broadcasts still come from nearby Cuba, and though Key West is quarantined, someday soon that quarantine will be lifted and Cuba will be coming. The world is rebuilding.

At one point in the novel, Fiskadoro loses much of his memory as part of a ceremony he undergoes with the swamp people. On his way back home, he sees from a distance some of the remnants of the nuclear disaster–great streams of traffic where people were burned alive in their cars. He tells his teacher, Cheung, about what he saw and Cheung tells him that he will be a great leader one day. He tells Fiskadoro:

You’ve been to their world and now you’re in this world, but you don’t have the memories to make you crazy. It isn’t sleeping under the moon that makes a crazy person. It’s waking up and remembering the past and thinking it’s real.

It’s kind of an odd statement. Usually people seem to advocate the whole “those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it” thing, but Cheung seems to be think halfway is better. No knowledge means no vision about going forward, but too much means getting stuck trying to live the past. As such, Cheung seems to think Fiskadoro is in a unique position.

Regardless, Fiskadoro is an interesting but strange little book. It definitely wasn’t what I expected from Denis Johnson. I doubt I got all that there was there on just a first reading, but what I did get definitely increased my respect for the variety of which Johnson is apparently capable. You’ll just have to take a look and see if it is as surprising for you, coming from Johnson as it does, as it was for me.

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