American author Adam Johnson’s short story collection Fortune Smiles
(2015) is the successor to his books Emporium
and The Orphan Master’s Son
, the latter of which won a Pulitzer Prize. Most of the six stories in Fortune Smiles
have independently won fiction awards. They share in common a concern with the existential and moral quandaries that people encounter in life; in particular, ones related to the body and physical illness, identity, death, and alienation. Rather than ruminate on the negativity of these themes, Johnson’s stories celebrate how people live on in spite of them.
The collection opens with the story “Nirvana.” Here, an unnamed man takes care of his newly paralyzed wife, Charlotte, while narrating his own existential inquiry into the meaning and limits of life. The narrator’s wife tries to keep her despair at bay by listening to the music of Nirvana for hours every day. Meanwhile, the narrator, a computer programmer, creates a device that allows him to render a hologram of any person, living or dead. Through it, he resurrects the recently deceased President of the United States, who was tragically assassinated. He asks the President questions about his marriage and his philosophy of death, disclosing that he is worried Charlotte will try to kill herself. Then, he creates a hologram of the lead singer of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, to speak to Charlotte. Charlotte implores Cobain not to commit suicide (as the real-life Cobain did), as it would cause her immense pain. This ending suggests that through the exercise of empathy, Charlotte has partially overcome the despair of her paralysis.
The story “Hurricanes Anonymous” follows Randall “Nonc” Richard, a mailman for the United Postal Service. While working in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he discovers his own son in his truck. He learns that his ex-wife has suddenly handed him over despite their contentious custody battle. Nonc investigates his wife’s disappearance while taking care of the boy with his girlfriend, Nelle. His life is interrupted further when he learns that his estranged father, last seen when he stole Nonc’s car and moved to Los Angeles, is terminally ill. Nonc discovers that his ex-wife was arrested for her association with a drug dealer who used her phone as a burner device. Nonc calls his father and begins to reconcile over their split. At the end of the novel, he goes to visit him in Los Angeles and brings Relle, signaling the rebirth of their family.
“Interesting Facts” is told by a survivor of breast cancer who readjusts to life after undergoing a double mastectomy. She struggles with her self-image, especially as it relates to her sexual relationship with her husband. Her husband insists that he sees her as his true love and intends to die with her. Ultimately, the woman realizes that she was never lacking in love from her husband, but rather should rekindle her relationships with her family. “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” follows Hans, a divorced man and the director of a museum built within the old Hohenschonhausen Prison. Hans is enraged when he finds out that some museum guides are telling visitors that torture occurred in the prison. In the middle of a tour guided by one such guide, Berta, Hans debates her over her allegations, claiming that the forms of mistreatment prisoners endured there was not torture. To illustrate his point, he tells her to douse him with buckets of water, a common form of violence at Hohenschonhausen. The episode triggers his difficult memories of living in East Germany during the Cold War.
“Dark Meadows” follows an IT worker who tracks down creators of child porn, acting as the arbiter of justice by both helping them get rid of their files and exposing their files to the police. While some of the most repentant users are spared, the rest are sent to the police’s database. Ironically, the narrator himself is attracted to several young girls who live in the house next to his. The story concludes without a clear resolution, suggesting that some self-contradictions are never resolved.
The collection’s titular and final story, “Fortune Smiles,” follows Sun-ho and DJ, two North Koreans who flee to South Korea seeking a better life. They find that it is harder to integrate into a free society than they had anticipated. Sun-ho yearns to reunite with the girlfriend he left behind, Willow. He ritually demonstrates this hope by sending helium balloons across the DMZ line with gifts for her. When the pain of being apart becomes too much, he ties hundreds of balloons to a lawn chair and crosses the DMZ line himself. This story resonates with the book’s distinctly modern themes of alienation, national ambivalence, and unorthodox conceptions of home and community.