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Nov 23

Book Review: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Bottom Line

A powerful, intellectually honest and confronting collection of six stories.

Representative Paragraph

An excerpt from “Interesting Facts”

This was a year after my diagnosis, surgery, chemo and the various interventions, injections, indignities and treatments. When I got sick, our youngest child turned herself into a horse: silent and untamable, our Horse-child now only whinnies and neighs. Before that, though, she went through a phase we called Interesting Facts. “Interesting fact,” she would announce, and then share a wonder with us: A killer whale has never killed a person in the wild. Insects are high in protein. Hummingbirds have feelings and are often sad. So here are some of my interesting facts. Lupron, aside from ceasing ovulation, is used to chemically castrate sexual predators. Vinblastine interrupts cell division. It is a poisonous alkaloid made from the purple blossoms of the periwinkle plant. Tamoxifen makes your hips creak. My eyebrows fell out a year after finishing chemo. And long after your tits are taken, their phantoms remain. They get cold, they ache when you exercise, they feel wet after you shower, and you can towel like a crazy woman, but still they drip.

Commentary

Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles – recent winner of the National Book award – collects six very different stories, both in terms of tone and plot. The opening piece, “Nirvana” is pure science fiction, set in the near future where an algorithm developed by our protagonist, which allows people to speak to a holographic representation of the President, has gone viral. The next story slingshots the reader back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a decision that faces UPS delivery driver “Nonc” in regard to his infant son and whether he stays in New Orléans or searches for his fortune elsewhere. Other stories include the challenges faced by a group of North Koreans who have defected to South Korea (“Fortune Smiles”) and a confronting piece about a man, struggling with his own predilection for young girls, waging an electronic war with the peddlers of kiddie porn (“Dark Meadow”).

What does link each story, aside from some very fine writing, is Johnson’s willingness to confront subject matter and situations that generally make us feel uncomfortable.  The aforementioned “Dark Meadow” doesn’t pull its punches, its depiction of how child pornography is both produced and disseminated provides us with a glimpse of a world that is all too real – whether we want to acknowledge it or not. The same goes for “Nirvana” and its treatment of  depression and disability – the protagonist’s’ wife suffers from Guillain-Barre syndrome.  “Hurricane Anonymous” is brutally honest about the devastation and lack of basic services that faced those who survived Katrina.

At the top of the pile though is the magnificently titled, “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine”.  It’s not only the best story in the collection, but also the most powerful and confronting (yes, even compared to the one about kiddie porn).  It’s told from the perspective of Hans Backer, ex-warden of an East German prison where the secret police (the Stasi) psychologically and physically tortured the “prisoners”. These were mostly dissidents (artists, poets, writers) who didn’t hold truck with the oppressive communist regime.  Backer, who lives next door to the prison – now tourist attraction – remains a true believer. While walking his dog, he’s quick to correct tour guides about the so called torture that occurred. For Backer the prisoners were never unduly harmed or mistreated.

Johnson remains true to Backer’s worldview for the entirety of the story. There are brief moments of self-awareness, pangs of guilt over how he treated his wife – who he clearly still loves even if she has left him and taken their daughter with her – and a brief acknowledgement that the cells were possibly a little smaller than he remembered, but overall this a man who took pride in his work and who detests that the tour guides, most of them ex-prisoners, are now spouting these lies. After spending a whole day with one tour group, administered by an ex-prisoner / guide who remembers the warden’s bureaucratic cruelty, Backer decides to finally head on home.  However…

It’s when I’m walking toward the main gate that I hear Berta directing the students toward the hospital wing. “And now for the house of horrors,” she calls out. Her tone is indignant and angry. I stop walking, watch them file inside, and even from here, I can hear her indicate the rings in the walls where sick inmates were manacled and the waiting stations where wheelchairs were chained. Next she’ll start again on those nonexistent exams and begin spewing the usual hogwash about how Dr. Werner healed the patients only enough to endure more interrogation.

This I cannot take, this is too much to stand.

This decision to once again correct the lies of people like Berta leads to an astonishing scene where Backer, willingly, undergoes the water torture suffered by so many others.  Johnson keeps the meaning of this scene deliberately opaque.  Is Backer subconsciously punishing himself, washing away his guilt, or does he genuinely believe that only a demonstration of his courage will prove his and the prison’s worth? Whatever the reading, Johnson’s unwillingness to provide Backer with an epiphany or the reader with a neat and well packaged moral is the true power of this story.

Fortune Smiles is a fantastic collection and a worthy winner of the National Book Award (even if I did like Karen E. Bender’s Refund a tad more).  While the dark and challenging subject matter won’t be for everyone, I still heartily recommend the book for the quality of the prose and, most of all, the intellectual honesty that Johnson applies to each story.

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