Fiskadoro, by Denis Johnson. New York: Knopf. 221 pp. $14.95. Denis Johnson is a young American poet whose well-received first novel, ``Angels'' (1983), demonstrated a genuine gift for vivid and coherent narrative and an ability to create distinctive, compelling characters. This, his second novel, confirms those qualities and represents a bold and surprising step forward.
It's a tale of the post-nuclear future, occurring in the mid-21st century, some 60 years after the bombs have fallen. The setting is the Florida Keys (which are all that remains of America), now a wasteland populated by malformed and radiation-diseased people and known as ``the Quarantine.'' Various ``tribes'' -- such as ``the Israelites'' and ``the swamp people'' -- pursue their solitary occupations and obsessions, awaiting the prophesied return of their Redeemer (be he Allah or Muhammad, or some other
vaguely glimpsed Presence). Others anticipate the appearance of a ``White Dot'' over the water, which may be either an invading fleet from Cuba, daring at last to break through the Quarantine -- or else the appalling flash of light that heralds the End of the World all over again.
In what was Key West, and is now called ``Twice Town'' (because it was twice hit by bombs that did not explode), Anthony Cheung leads a group of musicians who call themselves the Miami Symphony Orchestra and belongs to a Society for Science, ``a breakaway faction of intellectuals'' hoping to preserve the knowledge and traditions of the past. His grandmother Marie Wright, a 100-year-old survivor of the fall of Saigon in 1975, lives on, unable to talk, enclosed in her memories of that earlier apocalyptic
On West Beach, north of Twice Town in an old military compound now inhabited by people who name themselves ``the Army,'' a teen-age boy, Fiskadoro (which means both ``fisherman'' and ``harpooner''), dreams of something beyond his family's fate to be fishermen; his is an embryonic intelligence and sensibility, an instrument waiting to be employed.
What eventually happens to these three people defines the further future Denis Johnson has imagined for this destroyed culture's embattled survivors. The boy undergoes a savage maturation ``ceremony'' that robs him of his memory, yet endows him with prophetic, and perhaps redemptive, powers. An eerie tension builds between Mr. Cheung's learned determination to resuscitate the past and a more instinctual, primitive searching for ``the power to go on living after Hell is brought near, the power to make ba bies and keep generations living on the Earth.''
``Fiskadoro'' is, finally, less a cautionary tale than a novel of ideas about apocalypse and the human psyche. It's a dialectic in which the claims of past wisdom (and ``civilization'') are opposed to a primal, millennarian faith in the life-to-be.
It's a risky, ambitious, exhilarating book propelled by the kind of mad excess energy we detect in writers like Melville and D. H. Lawrence. The post-nuclear world it explores is rendered in intense and memorable detail (down to the creation of a language that seems compounded of illiterate English and pidgin Spanish). If there are imperfect connections and loose ends aplenty, there is also evidence, everywhere we look, of a truly creative imagination excitedly inventing, describing, characterizing, pl otting. It's a remarkable performance.