Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In Fortune Smiles, which won the most recent National Book Award, Adam Johnson collects six short stories that showcase both his penchant for dark, uncomfortable subject matter and his startlingly powerful ability to treat unsympathetic characters with compassion. Johnson, who has garnered laurels in the past for a novel about North Korea, repeatedly takes on apparently unredeemable perspectives—a virtual-reality-obsessed programmer in Palo Alto, a reclusive pedophile with a traumatic past, a retired and unrepentant East German prison warden—and convinces the reader to replace at least some disgust with sympathy. Certain stories, like “Interesting Facts” (about a raging cancer sufferer) and “Hurricanes Anonymous” (about a displaced delivery man in Louisiana in 2005), miss the magic ratio of darkness to compassion and spoil the effect. But then you get a piece like “Fortune Smiles,” in which Johnson turns his focus back toward North Korea to explore the lives of two defectors to South Korea and their near-suicidal impulse to re-defect back into the North. This story closes the collection, cementing the book’s diverse but complimentary themes: the irrationality of obsession, the persistence of pain, and, most importantly, the essential humanness of everyone, even those we don’t understand.