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 National Book Award for fiction on Wednesday, 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, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Price for his novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, and so the award for Fortune Smiles come as no surprise. What is a welcome revelation is that Johnson is so adept at 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 realize that some events are actually developments. You realize there’s a big plan out there you know nothing about, and a development is your first step in that new direction. ... The truth is, the hurricane didn’t change Nonc’s life one bit. Neither will the death of his father. The tricky part, Nonc has figured out, is telling the difference between the two.”
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 ravished 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.
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All of the characters in Fortune Smiles face such moral quandaries. Sometimes technology seems a promising ally: The Palo Alto programmer husband in Nirvana can reanimate the assassinated president to comfort himself (and thousands of others who also download the president). But he’s helpless in the face of his wife’s debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome, which has paralyzed her for nine months (Nonc would call this a development, not an event). She’ll recover, or she’ll be stuck forever, and they don’t know which yet. She has elicited a promise from him he never wanted to make and gets through the nights grimly listening to Nirvana. Here we are now, dead Kurt Cobain sings. Entertain us.
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 from whom we can’t quite look away.
While the pedophile is all too aware of the dangers of reality, other characters flatly refuse to see the truth. The former Stasi prison warden in George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine is enraged by the new world view on what he did before the Wall fell. Abandoned by his family, he has little to do but walk his dog and interrupt tours of the prison, insisting that no torture ever occurred there. “Duty calls upon us to perform tasks we’d rather not,” he says, willing at last to go to great lengths to prove his point.
The mother with cancer in the shattering but never sentimental Interesting Facts also wrestles with the impossible: The fact that she might have to let go of her children and husband (a writer who has written a successful book about Korea — sound familiar?). But once diagnosed, once she’s had surgery, once she’s visibly sick for all to see, she finds the line between living and invisibility hard to distinguish. “The truth is,” she says, “that you don’t need to die to know what it’s like to be a ghost.”
The living often feel like ghosts in the title story, set in South Korea. Two defectors from North Korea — criminals who counterfeited Chinese lottery tickets in their homeland — 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 skeptical 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.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.
Meet the author
Who: Adam Johnson with Padgett Powell and Kelly Link.
When: 4:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Auditorium, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., www.miamibookfair.com