The Florida Keys, well after nuclear destruction has come and gone--in an impressionistic, thickly inventive, fiercely...



The Florida Keys, well after nuclear destruction has come and gone--in an impressionistic, thickly inventive, fiercely uneven novel from the poet/author of Angels. There are post-nuclear survivors in Twicetown because two separate rockets did not explode on impact. And the life there has become grimly primitive: there are no machines; the only language is an unexpressive m‚ange of Spanish and English; pirates prey on fishing boats; the local blacks--""Israelites""--pray to Allah and ""God Bob Marley""; and cancer, called the ""kill-me,"" is a pervasive, lurking death sentence. (Life on the other islands is even more uncivilized.) One survivor, however, an ex-member of the Miami Symphony Orchestra named Cheung, still embodies remnants of destroyed Western civilization: he knows the Declaration of Independence by heart; he keeps a rag-tag bunch of musicians together as best he can--even though they have no instruments; he regards the few extant books in the world as sacred objects, going to Marathon to see a newly recovered volume. So, when a young boy, Fiskadoro, comes to Cheung with a clarinet, interested in music lessons, there seems to be some hope for the future. But then Fiskadoro's father dies while fishing--and, in a grotesque allegorical ritual involving castration and aboriginal rites, the boy has his memory cleared: he is lost to Cheung forever. . . though perhaps he is better off now, utterly untainted by memory, completely open to the essences of the blasted world he fives in. In this complex fantasy, then, Johnson is raising fundamental questions about knowledge and survival--and he does so with considerable skill, though without the striking impact of Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz (an obvious influence here). And one section of this new novel has the same high-voltage poetic vividness of Johnson's Angels debut: the memories of Cheung's grandmother (in contrast to Fiskadoro, she is all memory), who survived the long-ago fall of Saigon and also survived near-drowning in the ocean after an evacuating helicopter's sea-crash. (""Upturned heads floated around her in a green waste. Between the blasts of wind rolling over it, there wasn't a sound but the water. The shock of being here was no greater than the shock of being defiled by this filthy secret, the noises the ocean made all alone in the middle of itself. Its infinitesimal salt bubbles hissed and breathed and the surface water turned over and licked along itself and coughed softly."") Elsewhere, however, Johnson's adventurous set-pieces are fractured by his obtrusive grapplings with the philosophical issues involved--while some of the deep ponderings seem to end up in rather simplistic, even preachy answers. (Cheung's grandmother is saved from drowning ""not because her hands reached out; because other hands than hers reached down and saved her."") And the result is a daring, daunting jig-saw puzzle of a novel--less than the sum of its often-impressive parts, intellectually ambitious but only half-persuasive, disjointed in its attempt to blend parable with poetic drama.

Pub Date: April 29, 1985

ISBN: 0060976098

Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1985

Close Quickview