BookPage Fiction Top Pick, September 2015
It takes a writer of immense confidence and talent to fashion beautiful stories that chronicle ordinary people coping with devastating challenges. Adam Johnson demonstrated this talent in his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He now does the same in Fortune Smiles, a collection of six powerful short stories in which characters are forced to contend with some of life’s biggest tragedies.
“Nirvana” is a futuristic tale in which a computer programmer who has written an algorithm that can search for videos of dead people and “summon” them cares for his joint-smoking wife, who suffers from Guillain-Barré syndrome. In the eerie “Dark Meadow,” the police ask a pedophile who owns a computer repair business to help them track down people who view child pornography on the Web. The protagonist of “Interesting Facts,” a frustrated novelist who has undergone a double mastectomy, worries about what life would be like for her husband and two children if she were to die. “Hurricanes Anonymous” tells the story of a UPS driver who returns to his van after making a FEMA delivery in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana and finds there his 2-year-old son, whom his girlfriend has abandoned. In “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” a former Stasi prison warden in East Germany wonders who is leaving mysterious packages on his lawn. And in the riveting title story, two defectors from North Korea struggle to adapt to the more democratic life of the South.
Sound depressing? It could be in the hands of a lesser writer. But even in the midst of emotionally trying events, Johnson finds moments of delight, such as when the UPS driver in “Hurricanes Anonymous” changes his son’s diaper and “does [the boy’s] favorite part” by holding the talcum dispenser up high and letting the powder snow down. Each page contains vivid details: A character standing on a bridge looks out at “that sandwich spread of ocean.” Johnson’s tortured characters may not always get what they want, but all of them have reason to hope.