Book review: Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles is a disturbing collection of six unforgettable stories
This National Book Award winner deserves every accolade as it chronicles, subtly and precisely, the ways people handle the vagaries of fate
by Adam Johnson
If the best stories are the works that dig their way into your brain and refuse to come out, then Adam Johnson’s new collection has truly earned its accolades. The six lean, disturbing, unforgettable works in Fortune Smiles, which won the US National Book Award for fiction in November, are distinct and unique, each a perfect marvel of subtlety and precision, each devastating in its own way. But they’re united in their ability to linger in your consciousness.
Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, and so the award for Fortune Smiles comes as no surprise. What is a welcome revelation is Johnson’s adept handling of the shorter literary form. His restrained but haunting stories examine loss through the eyes of characters ravaged by loneliness and isolation. They’re all at the crossroads, struggling to take the next step.
Nonc, a UPS driver trying to rebuild his life after Katrina and Rita in “Hurricanes Anonymous”, has the idea he understands how life works: “Nonc’s dad is going to die for sure this time. But the truth is, it’s just an event. Life’s full of events – they occur and you adjust, you roll and move on. But at some point, like when your girlfriend Marnie tells you she’s pregnant, you realise that some events are actually developments.”
The latest development for Nonc has been the fact that his girlfriend (now an ex) abandoned their infant son in his UPS truck and disappeared. With nowhere to live but his truck – he was evicted from his apartment before the storm – he straps in the child and drives around the ravaged parish delivering goods. He’s looking for his ex, and his estranged father is dying out in California, but he’s managing. Nonc’s manipulative new girlfriend, however, has other ideas about which direction their lives should take.
All of the characters in Fortune Smiles face such moral quandaries.
In the collection’s most chilling story, Dark Meadow”, a reformed child pornography addict assures us: “I have never hurt anyone in my life”, only to spend the rest of the story reeling in the face of temptation. The tension is exquisite as Johnson reveals the human side of a monster, a man we can’t quite look away from.
The living often feel like ghosts in the title story, set in South Korea. Two defectors from North Korea try to adapt to their new lives with mixed success. One of them misses a woman so much he makes a drastic decision. But of course what he misses is the known, constricted as it was.
His companion, though, views freedom with a less sceptical eye. Unlike the fake tickets they manufactured in Pyongyang, the lottery tickets in Seoul hold possibilities. “Every ticket was capable of winning if you played it right, which meant your fate was no one’s but your own.” Forget luck. Displaced, lost, rolling on or standing still, we still can take charge of our destiny.
Tribune News Service