The six stories in Adam Johnson’s new collection, Fortune Smiles, will worm into your mind and ruin your balance for a few days ... Johnson’s style is quiet and unassuming, a gentle reflection of the muted people he usually writes about. But restraint only increases the intensity of these stories and makes their visceral effect more surprising. His characters are cramped by circumstance or weakness, struggling to make sense of situations they can’t entirely understand or even believe.
As with The Orphan Master’s Son, there’s a great deal of comedy to be found in Fortune Smiles, though the humor in this new book is offset by a darkness so pervasive I found it seeping into my daily life. Despairing men are at the heart of each of these tales, most of them protagonists on the cusp of being antagonists ... Each of these stories plants a small bomb in the reader’s head; life after reading Fortune Smiles is a series of small explosions in which the reader — perhaps unwillingly — recognizes Adam Johnson’s gleefully bleak world in her own ... When comedy is applied to tragedy over and over, it can start to take on an element of defensiveness; cumulatively, it can feel as if Johnson is holding the reader at arm’s length by how cheery his darkness can be ... Among authorial sins, defensiveness feels minor, but when one is being asked to be moved by a story, when the story is so clearly the most heartfelt one in the book, anything distancing that has been inserted in the space between the author and the reader does matter. Perhaps this is to say that the stories in Fortune Smiles may be best appreciated when taken out into the sunshine one by one.
The volume’s two standouts — the title story and 'Nirvana,' about a computer programmer who uses virtual reality to reanimate a dead American president — straddle the worlds of realism and fable, and attest to Mr. Johnson’s elastic and idiosyncratic voice: his ability to write with both tenderness and satiric verve, and his electro-magnetic feel for the absurdities of life and the human costs they represent ... The two weakest links in this collection — 'Dark Meadow' (about a pedophile) and 'George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine' (about a former East German prison warden) — feature such reprehensible characters that Mr. Johnson has a difficult time persuasively putting across their points of view ... The other tales in Fortune Smiles are worth everything: They reaffirm all the gifts Mr. Johnson demonstrated in The Orphan Master’s Son.
Feel-good stories? Not exactly. But as part of Adam Johnson’s haunting, harrowing new collection, Fortune Smiles, they will burrow their way into your heart, leaving you shaken but also exhilarated and enriched ... Johnson’s writing is as rich in compassion as it is in invention, and that rare combination makes Fortune Smiles worth treasuring.
In the six almost-novellas contained in the book, a reader bears witness to a highly literary writer willing to take risk after risk after risk ... 'Dark Meadow' delivers an experience to rival anything on-screen. Dark Meadow, the screen name of a former pedophile ensconced in a bungalow in LA, lives to garden — but also to track and fight child porn, even as he battles his own lurking desires ... Equally consuming and, as it turns out, shattering is 'Nirvana,' a story about a man who invents a live hologram of an unnamed assassinated president and whose terminally ill wife is obsessed with Kurt Cobain ... The other two stories in Fortune Smiles, one set in South Korea (the title story), the other in New Orleans, would be fine examples of solid stories in most any other collection, but here they exert less power.
Johnson’s boundary-pushing stories make for exhilarating reading. He may send us across the world, but we feel close to his characters because he gives us intimate access to their inner workings. And his mastery of setting simply wowed me ... Perhaps Johnson’s most arresting story is 'Interesting Facts.' Here the narrator is a woman who’s battling cancer and married to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In other words, Johnson fictionalizes his own wife and gives us her view of their daily lives. This is thinly veiled fiction at its best — and its most dangerous.
The titular story of Johnson’s collection isn’t the only one in which the author works as a sort of mashup artist, expertly weaving together experiences outside of his own ... Johnson’s short stories are an amusing, if sometimes clinical, peek inside seldom-explored worlds, from the depths of the inner lives of aging, terminally ill women to the oppressive yet beautiful corners of North Korea.
The stories in Adam Johnson’s excellent second collection, Fortune Smiles, tend to open by introducing a cryptic word or phrase whose meaning isn’t fully revealed at first. That’s a handy way for any short-story writer to hook a reader. But Johnson hides especially dark and peculiar meanings: Those innocent unexplained words soon lead to visions of emotional and physical wreckage, from North Korea to post-Katrina Louisiana to East German torture facilities. Gotcha, you imagine Johnson saying, each time.
This new collection, while not flawless, showcases Johnson's immense creativity and intelligence, and his admirers will find a lot to love in most of these six stories ... Johnson is tremendously talented, and even though not all of the stories cohere, they still manage to enlighten. The best stories in the collection are nothing less than brilliant, even if the worlds he creates aren't necessarily ones we want to live in.
The six lean, disturbing, unforgettable works in Fortune Smiles 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 ... 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.
Fortune’s six stories are mostly grounded in more familiar settings, but strangeness thrums beneath them all. The characters—a UPS driver in post-Katrina Louisiana, a cancer patient, a self-loathing pedophile, a mismatched pair of Korean defectors, the former warden of a Stasi prison—are all displaced in some way, exiled or lost or just gone astray. The best story may be the first: 'Nirvana,' a beautifully calibrated near-future fable about a Silicon Valley programmer who reanimates an assassinated president to help him cope with the illness of his young wife. But every one carves out its own little corner of weird, indelible humanity.
Unlike his universally beloved The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s new work, Fortune Smiles, is an uneven output. Its six short pieces range from brilliant tales of pain and struggle, to more rote pieces focusing on adrift Koreans and former Stasi guards refusing to acknowledge their crimes, to downright bizarre metafiction about marriage, writing, and disease ... Johnson, a master of the slow-boil reveal, allows his characters to naturally progress to a place where their hard-won decisions seem like necessity, not mere choice.