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.