Short stories admittedly aren’t my favorite thing to read. I often find they are anticlimactic or that they feel unfinished, and I can’t help but have a difficult time pouring myself into a story that I know will end so quickly. But Adam Johnson’s short story collection, Fortune Smiles, is on the National Book Award shortlist, so I had a feeling I was in store for something special, and I was anything but disappointed.
The stories – distinctly melancholy, darkly funny, bleak and sometimes surreal – are thematically consistent: they’re about lonely people facing extraordinary challenges.
In Nirvana, a man’s wife has been stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, her entire body paralyzed for the past nine months. Struggling with his wife’s illness and her threat of suicid, he develops a program that allows him to speak to the hologram of a recently deceased president, and takes solace in his new confidant.
In Hurricanes Anonymous, a directionless young father takes care of his son in post-Katrina New Orleans.
In Interesting Facts, the ghost of a woman who died of breast cancer visits her family and worries about her husband moving on.
In George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine, a former Stasi prison warden is in denial about the atrocities committed under his watch, and eerily attempts to justify and rationalize torture as a necessary part of a functioning society.
In Dark Meadows – perhaps one of the most harrowing and disturbing stories I’ve ever read – a non-offending pedophile who himself was abused as a child helps the police track child pornography cases and finds himself looking after two neglected young girls in his neighborhood.
And finally, in Fortune Smiles, a man who defected from North Korea struggles to adapt to life in South Korea and dreams of returning to his home country.
The problem with many short story collections is that they are uneven. While some of the stories take hold of you, others are immediately forgettable. But with Fortune Smiles, almost every single story had me captivated – with the exception, perhaps, of Hurricanes Anonymous. If you enjoy short stories, don’t miss this collection. And even if you typically don’t, give it a try anyway.