Book Review: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

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Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

Adam Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which is set in North Korea. Johnson returns to the subject of North Korea in the title story of this collection, Fortune Smiles, but that story and the others here are very diverse.

Johnson’s slightly cynical style and his frequent focus on pop culture and technology reminded me of Douglas Coupland. (At least, earlier Coupland, not so much the grumpy old man style Coupland seems to be nurturing in recent years.)

There’s a story about a man with a dying wife who creates a sort of hologram of a recently assassinated president that’s subtly packed with all kinds of thoughts and theories on modern life, on memory, on our interactions with technology. There’s a story so clearly based on Johnson’s own wife and family that I took to Google to find out if his wife was still alive because I questioned whether or not anyone would allow such a story to be told. There’s a story told from the perspective of a pedophile that I really struggled to finish and kind of felt awful about afterward and I still can’t quite decide if that’s a sign of how good it was or how terrible. And there’s a story about North Korea – this time about defectors attempting to live their lives in Seoul.

It’s a diverse group of characters and a strong variety of settings. San Francisco, Gangnam district, New Orleans post-Katrina, an East German prison after the Wall came down. These are characters in the hardest situations of their lives. Whether that’s the death of a loved one or trying to raise a son foisted on you by a one-time girlfriend or dealing with the collapse of your marriage because you were once the warden of a Stasi prison. Yeah, like I said, diverse.

Johnson clearly takes his time with the details and he gets his research right. The details add to the stories without being overpowering. Most of the tales are dark but not all are entirely unhappy. Johnson’s voice feels much stronger and more noticeable behind these stories than in The Orphan Master’s Son but I certainly don’t think that’s a bad thing. I look forward to reading his next novel and seeing what new direction he goes in.

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