If Adam Johnson doesn’t write fiction with a knife wedged between his teeth, it would come as a shock. His stories and novels present as dares. Something like: “Hey, I bet you can’t write something from the point of view of the ex-warden in East Germany’s most notorious prison and make us kind of fall in love with the cranky old torturer!” “Oh yeah?” you hear Johnson mumble. “Well, watch this.”
And watch we do, most of the time spectacularly entertained and moved and terrified all at once. To wit, Johnson’s novel, “The Orphan’s Master’s Son,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013 and took the astonishing risk of imagining a North Korean orphan who rises through the treacherous ranks and history of Kim Jong Il’s vacuum-packed authoritarian state. Some writers write what they know; Johnson, in contrast, seems most at home the farther he ventures from it.
His new collection of stories, “Fortune Smiles,” doubles down on this recipe, blending exotic scenarios, morally compromised characters, high-wire action, rigorously limber prose, dense thickets of emotion, and, most critically, our current techno-moment. In the six almost-novellas contained in the book, a reader bears witness to a highly literary writer willing to take risk after risk after risk.
I started “Fortune’s Smiles” at the same time I began belatedly to binge-watch the gripping “Breaking Bad.” But Johnson’s story “Dark Meadow” delivers an experience to rival anything on-screen. Dark Meadow, the screen name of a former pedophile ensconced in a bungalow in LA, lives to garden — but also to track and fight child porn, even as he battles his own lurking desires. He also happens to live next door to temptation: a couple of young girls left to raise themselves as their absentee
rocker-mother follows her selfish muse. What starts as a compelling day-in-the-life of a reformed criminal transforms into a profoundly sad meditation on trauma and the precarious nature of life.
The story begins: “Normally, I garden when night falls, when the urges come. But I was up most of the night writing an article titled ‘Is Your Pornography Watching You?’
Equally consuming and, as it turns out, shattering is “Nirvana,” a story about a man who invents a live hologram of an unnamed assassinated president (yes, you read that synopsis properly) and whose terminally ill wife is obsessed with Kurt Cobain. “Interesting Facts” focuses on another mortally ill woman, this one a failed writer whose husband, in a familiar turn, has just won the Pulitzer Prize for a novel set in North Korea. And finally, in “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” there’s that East German prison director, who returns after many years to set the record straight, or try, at least, among the hordes of tourists who throng Hohenschönhausen. Written in the semi-reliable first person and present tense, all four voice-driven stories are consummately inhabitable. We live the impossible drama of the story as the main character lives it, and this is where the likes of “Breaking Bad” are given a true run for their money: We live the life because we are in the action, but also very much on the inside of a mind, consciousness, and body.
The other two stories in “Fortune Smiles,” one set in South Korea (the title story), the other in New Orleans, would be fine examples of solid stories in most any other collection, but here they exert less power. This stems, it would seem, from the fact that both are written in the third person and in situations where the author feels more alive than the characters. Both stories dance a bit too close to sentimentality. And neither feels as profoundly lived-in as the other four, where the protagonists’ ectoplasm run down into the stories’ very syntax.
FORTUNE SMILES: Stories
By Adam Johnson
Random House, 304 pp., $27
Ted Weesner, Jr., teaches at Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.