A friend gave me copies of Denis Johnson's "Fiskadoro" and "Already Dead," and told me to read "Fiskadoro" second since it was maybe too bizarre an introduction to the author's work. As a lover of the bizarre, I ignored his advice and read "Fiskadoro" first.
As noted by other reviewers, probably Johnson's greatest strength is his poetic and creative use of language. Like Bruno Schulz (as so brilliantly translated by Celina Wieniewski), he gives you sentences and paragraphs that are truly breathtaking, like unexpectedly stumbling across a scene of incredible beauty. Also like Schulz, Johnson is also quite adept at conveying dreamlike states of mind, and can inspire the conviction that delirium is more true than "objective" reality.
"Fiskadoro" can be called a science fiction book only in the most hair-splitting sense. It's not a druggy fantasy like the Carlos Castaneda books. Nor is it a cautionary tale warning us of the effects of nuclear devastation--although it certainly does convey some of those horrors very effectively. This is more of a psychological adventure, a meditation on human consciousness and being, with plenty of entertaining experiences along the way.
Johnson's humor is very sophisticated. It's a sign of his great skill that much of the humor is totally contextual, but nonetheless very amusing. His humor is not the knee-slapping variety, but more the awe-inspiring, thought-provoking variety. But very funny nonetheless.
Some of the imagery is so cinematic, so well described--with fairly ordinary language surrounding precisely the correct word to unlock the door to mysterious imaginings--that I would find myself thinking, "Wow...Can someone really do that with just words?" The guy is truly a gifted writer.
Occasionally, too, Johnson throws in a wise observation or imparts a philosophical nugget of the sort that a serious reader might jot down in a commonplace book, and that's always very rewarding.
The characterizations are less satisfying, for the most part. There are a number of very interesting characters, and we do get to know some of them pretty well, but I sensed a certain distance from most of the characters, except maybe Mr. Cheung. This is less a character-driven story than an idea-driven one. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but some readers may be disappointed by that.
The attempts of Mr. Cheung, gardener, clarinetist, and Manager of the "Miami Symphony Orchestra," to maintain a civilized sensibility in the face of choas and entropy are very touching. He reminded me of Mr. Tagomi in Philip K. Dick's "Man in the High Castle"--thoughtful, dignified, worried, prim, self-critical, conscientious, dogged, earnest. And Johnson does an excellent job of helping us see things through Mr. Cheung's eyes when he's the POV character.
I thought the latter portion of the book, after Fiskadoro himself goes through his transformation, was less satisfying than the earlier sections. (This may be because I embarked on that section the day after seeing the second part of the Ken Burns documentary on Mark Twain. Suddenly "Fiskadoro" seemed trivial in comparison to the monumental works of Clemens.) Even though some very intense things happen, the story became more symbolic and less emotionally involving for me in its concluding stages.
I was also a little put off by the growing feeling that the author regarded black and poor folks as very alien. Maybe that's unfair, but there's sometimes a condescending, patronizing vibe toward some of the characters. I prefer a writer who's in there with the characters to one who could be slumming. (Or is that my own prejudices rearing their hydra heads?)
Overall, though, I highly recommend "Fiskadoro." There is much more going on here than a beautiful writing style. Johnson shows you wonders, he embraces pain and fear and death as integral to life, and he reminds you that despite everything, life is precious and profound, and, yes, worth it--and sometimes strange in ways that are almost impossible to imagine. He gives you much to think about, but he slips the ideas in skillfully, organically, so that they appear in the light-bleached, desolate splendor of the landscape in a way that makes them seem like they always belonged there.