This book review originally aired on November 30, 2015.
Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles delivers six stories, six milieux, and six new ways of seeing the world. Johnson’s stories portray the struggles of our world today, focusing mostly on characters living on the edge of proper society in circumstances out of their control, such as having to find work in a Stasi Prison; or the levees destruction after Hurricane Katrina; or defecting from Pyongyang to Seoul.
In “Hurricanes Anonymous,” a UPS driver and his girlfriend take care of a child of unspecified birth right; childcare is found at AA meetings, and the brown van becomes obsolete as a delivery vehicle and instead a becomes shelter for who ever needs it.
In “Nirvana,” the descriptions of the psychological state of a stage four cancer victim in palliative care is so powerful, and so well drawn, it will change anyone who hasn’t suffered from the cruel disease. When comfort is found in an image of Kurt Cobain, palliative care extends beyond pain medication.
The final title story, “Fortune Smiles” tells of two friends in South Korea in the early days of defection from Pyongyang. Memory and reality of life in Seoul influence the men to make a desperate move that is at once unexpected and devastating.
Johnson recently and unexpectedly won the National Book Award. The second collection of stories to win in as many years, these six stories are no mere slices of life, they are worlds unto themselves.