Book Review: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

I’m not really the type of guy who walks into a bookstore and just browses. I usually have a mental list of authors I’m looking for and rarely go for random books that catch my eye. The last time I did that for new books was maybe 2012. The book was The Orphan Master’s Son. And I loved it from the first page. So, when I saw he had a new book out, I just had to get it.

Fortune Smiles, winner of the 2015 National Book Award (making Johnson one of the very few to win both this and the Pulitzer for consecutive books), is a collection of six long short stories (or novellas). Most are set in present day, with a few exceptions going a few years into the future or a few years back. Topics range from child molesters to North Korean defectors. All are a bit depressing.

Here are descriptions of the stories:

Nirvana: A young man struggles to help his bedridden wife who has an autoimmune disease. At the same time, he creates a hologram of a recently assassinated president in order to give himself comfort that turns out to be a hit with the general populace.

Hurricane Anonymous: A UPS driver working near New Orleans soon after Katrina is suddenly left to care for his child with no way to contact the mother. In addition, he must deal with his girlfriend who wants to run away with him and his estranged father near death as he figures out his life.

Interesting Facts: A postmodern story. Narrated by a woman suffering from breast cancer and married to a man who suspiciously resembles Johnson himself, she must also cope with her sickness, her jealousy stemming from her husband’s writing successes (she once had dreams of being an author), and his possible attraction to other women.

George Orwell was a Friend of Mine: The retired warden of an infamous prison in East Germany fails to assimilate to life in reunited Germany. His family life is in shambles. The prison he once worked at is now a museum, and he begins going back, taunting tour groups and offering his own version of events.

Fortune Smiles: Two North Koreans escape and try to live in South Korea. But adapting to life in the South is difficult, even as they befriend other escapees and take pleasure in small things, like fast food chains and lottery tickets.

Dark Meadows: A computer savvy pedophile helps fix the tech of other pedophiles while also leaving a code that makes it easier to track them. Contacted by both the police, who want him to help them catch these men, and a former acquaintance who tries to pull him back into the underworld, the narrator is forced to choose which side to go along with. This story could easily have failed: make the main character too messed up and any sympathy instantly disappears, but Johnson expertly pulls it off.

While not as great as The Orphan Master’s Son, this collection cements him as a major writer of our time. He has been compared to both George Saunders and Kurt Vonnegut and fans of both would do well to check him out. As for those who like neither of those two authors, I’m not too big on them either and still really enjoy Johnson.

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