July 29, 1985 12:00 PM

by Denis Johnson

In this subtle novel of the future, it has been half a century since atom bombs erased most of America. Two duds landed in the Florida Keys, and it is there that survivors have gathered. They live off fish and sugarcane. Old auto seats are living room furniture in the Quonset hut where Fiskadoro, a 12-year-old boy, lives with his fisherman father, his mother and two younger brothers. The language they speak is a cryptic blurt of Spanish mixed with English. Fiskadoro finds a clarinet and goes to take music lessons from Mr. Cheung, the manager of something called the Miami Symphony Orchestra. It is through Mr. Cheung’s mute grandmother, who is more than 100 years old, that the reader learns that the end of the old world began with the fall of Saigon. The old woman drifts in dreams of the past, of her father’s suicide and her escape just as the Vietnamese city fell to the Communists. If only she could talk, she could tell her grandson about auto-filled cities and copying machines, computers and all the rest. But Mr. Cheung thinks of recent history in terms of dinosaur tracks, and his sense of the past is as muddled as the few remnants of our culture that survive. This hideous world is powerfully and brilliantly rendered. Johnson, a poet and the author of an earlier novel, Angels, is a compelling storyteller who makes his nightmare scenario rich and sensuous, frightening and then grimly hopeful. Fiskadoro suffers shocking tragedies, but in the end Mr. Cheung believes that the boy will be the leader of a new kind of world. This is possible, Mr. Cheung thinks, only because Fiskadoro has no real memory of anything that has gone before. (Knopf, $14.95)

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