Within science fiction, there is a great tradition of the oddball post-apocalyptic novel, pioneered by Philip Dick in Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) and Deus Irae (with Roger Zelazny, 1976). It is a tradition still thriving today in books like Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon (1995) and Ryna Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife (2012), and it includes Denis Johnson’s lyrical Fiskadoro. The oddball post-apocalyptic novel is not concerned with the gritty realities of survival; instead, it takes place in a less lethal and much more hallucinatory setting that is populated with various hucksters, grotesques, dreamers, and generally confused people who are trying to figure out just what the hell is going on.
The post-apocalyptic setting of Fiskadoro is a group of small fishing communities in the paradise of the Florida Keys, about sixty years after a nuclear war destroyed North America and probably much of the rest of the world. Life here is based on scraps of the pre-holocaust world: physical scraps, scraps of language, scraps of identity, and scraps of awareness of the birth of the present world. Salvaged car seats make up the living room furniture, and people speak in a combination of broken English and Spanish. The residents of these villages piece together their identities by assuming names of celebrities nobody can any longer recall, or grandiose but largely irrelevant titles like ‘Manager of the Miami Symphony Orchestra’.
The manager of the non-performing Miami Symphony Orchestra is Mr. Cheung, a pot-bellied, middle-aged man doggedly seeking to recover the lost technological and enlightened, rational past of great achievements. He and his family live in what used to be Key West with Cheung’s Grandmother Wright, a centenarian who is the only person around with a living memory of the pre-holocaust world. But Grandmother Wright’s memories are locked away forever, because she can no longer speak.
Nearby in a village called the Army (it was formerly a military base), Fiskadoro is a boy just entering adolescence. His community consists of families of fishermen who live in quonset huts. Fiskadoro has somehow inherited a rare clarinet, and he seeks out Mr. Cheung to be his teacher, with hopes of one day playing in the Miami Symphony Orchestra.
Their world is populated with various strange characters, from Mr. Cheung’s half-brother Martin (a scavenger and hustler who goes by the name of Cassius Clay Sugar Ray), a Baptist Church of Fire preacher named Mother who preaches the Bible and the God Bob Marley, a Voodoo priestess, and the Israelites, a dreadlocked, incomprehensible group of immigrants likely from more southern islands who are building a large, white, model boat that will never sail.
Like many great post-apocalyptic novels, Fiskadoro is about death and rebirth. Denis Johnson’s vividly described tale of this post-apocalyptic island paradise gradually moves toward searing scenes of symbolic death for each of the three primary characters. Mr. Cheung, part of a group seeking some written explanation for the end of the world, experiences a painfully realistic hallucination of the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki. Fiskadoro is kidnapped by mutant swamp people and undergoes a horrifying, drug-hazed, Voodoo coming-of-age ritual that culminates in genital mutilation and the obliteration of any memories of the past. For Grandmother Wright, the end of the world began long ago when she was fifteen, the day her British father committed suicide in Saigon, shortly before that city’s chaotic fall to the North Vietnamese. During her escape from Saigon, her helicopter crashed and she spent three days floating in the ocean, more dead than alive. She relives this memory, but cannot communicate it to her grandson.
Each of these stories ends in rebirth into a new world. Grandmother Wright was, obviously, rescued and has become for all practical purposes immortal. Fiskadoro is taken by a boatman back to the land of the living, after floating past the hellish landscape around the ruins of Miami. Mr. Cheung accepts that the past is irrecoverable and reconciles himself to the future. The island paradise itself may be about to undergo rebirth from a state of limbo: the Keys are part of a quarantined zone, to be reclaimed one day when the quarantine ends, by the surviving government in Cuba.
The post-apocalypse is the most common form of science fiction attempted by mainstream writers, and the results are often painfully unoriginal. But there are major exceptions: George Stewart’s majestic Earth Abides, several works of Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, and, most recently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Fiskadoro easily ranks with these books as one of the very best mainstream contributions to the genre. Johnson’s spare, beautiful language and his hallucinatory exploration of myths are successfully accompanied by a feature of science fiction that is often largely unappreciated by mainstream writers who try their hand at this genre: the absolutely compelling imagination of an alternative world.
Read more of my ongoing series on post-apocalyptic fiction What the End of the World Says About Science.
Image credit: Sky dancer 2000, Wikimedia Commons