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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Fortune Smiles

One of the oldest pieces of advice about writing is to write what you know, but Adam Johnson doesn't seem interested in that. In his brilliant collection of stories, Fortune Smiles, Johnson takes us to such far-flung places as hurricane-wracked Louisiana, a former Stasi prison in Germany, and Seoul, South Korea, to follow the exploits of two exiles from North Korea. Closer to home, one might think, is the story about a woman who is married to a writer just like Johnson.

I read his story "Nirvana" in the Best Nonrequired Reading of 2015, but upon reading it a second time found it more gripping. It tells the story of a woman with Gullain-Barre syndrome, paralyzed, and her dutiful husband. Needless to say, she's depressed, and he puts on headphones so she can listen to Nirvana every night.

That's not the darkest story of the six. That honor goes to "Dark Meadow," a story that is as disturbing as it is great. It's narrated by a computer guy who has fought with the demons inside him regarding sexualizing children by helping police catch other predators. His visit to a rundown house where child pornography is filmed is one of the creepiest scenes I've ever read.

Picking my favorite story of the group is hard. "Hurricanes Anonymous" concerns a hapless UPS driver who is looking for the mother of his child in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita (Katrina gets so much attention, but Rita came just a few weeks later in western Louisiana). It has a kind of down-home Southern gothic quality, with lines like: "Someone needs to tell them that they're better off without their coffee tables and photo albums. Some person will have to break it to them that their apartments weren't so great, that losing track of half their relatives is probably for the best. Some shit, though, you got to figure out for yourself."

I also loved "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," set in Germany. The former warden of a Stasi prison, now a tourist attraction, finds himself taking the tour and defending his actions, telling the tour guide (who was a former prisoner) that the prisoners were criminals and there was no torture committed there. Of course, we understand that he is in self-denial, rationalizing to keep his sanity. Having a narrator being an East German who is not happy about reunification is fascinating: "To think what the Stasi went through to spy on us. Even they couldn't dream of a world in which citizens voluntarily carried tracking devices, conducted self-surveillance and reported on themselves, morning, noon, and night."

"Interesting Facts" is a kind of meta-story, narrated by a woman who is married to a novelist much like Johnson (he has won a Pulitzer Prize for a book about North Korea, which Johnson did with The Orphan Master's Son). She is dripping with cynicism, a writer who can't sell her books and doesn't have much nice to say: "Even though she's a mother of two, her breasts are positively teenybopper. They pop. Her tits do everything but chew bubble gum and make Hello Kitty hearts."

The last and title story is about two North Koreans trying to adjust to their lives in Seoul after defecting. DJ is happier with a life of freedom, while Sun-Ho, a kind of older protector, can't stand it. They go to fast food restaurants and meetings with other defectors. It's a very funny but also sad story about the old saying "There's no place like home," even if it is a brutal dictatorship. I loved this line: "DJ understood that in South Korea, Americans were considered friends. He'd never really believed they were the enemy. After all, hadn't Americans invented scratch-off lottery tickets, crystal meth, hundred-dollar bills and, most important, the catalytic converter?"

Fortune Smiles won the National Book Award for Fiction, beating out some big novels that I hope to get around to this year. So far I have no objection, This is great writing.

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