I have yet to read Adam Johnson’s acclaimed novel The Orphan Master’s Son (2012). I did, however, spend much of my spare time in the last week reading his 2015 short story collection Fortune Smiles.
At three hundred pages, the collection is longer than many short story collections while containing only six stories: “Nirvana,” “Hurricanes Anonymous,” “Interesting Facts,” “George Orwell was a Friend of Mine,” “Dark Meadow,” and “Fortune Smiles.”
The first three stories intrigued me, but left my mind to dawdle on paragraphs and drift through pages. I could tell smart and clever things were happening, but I didn’t feel like I necessarily needed or wanted to know what they are. In some ways, I felt like I was reading the thoughts and language of Karen Russell stretched like taffy over too many pages. I wanted concentration, so I wouldn’t have to concentrate.
Then, I ambled into the tour of a German prison that takes place in “George Orwell was a Friend of Mine.” And, in the moment where the former prison guard and his prisoner reverse roles, the gears in my head grated and cracked and I started to dig Adam Johnson’s ability to position binaries in eclipse.
The last three stories in Fortune Smiles clarify the earlier efforts to stall and to leave as Johnson establishes a pattern of victims becoming perpetrators. In “Dark Meadow,” a child molester and scoutmaster is a source of both trauma and wisdom. And both are true: the darkness and the lightness. This embattled Skipper who is but a memory of the protagonist’s states: “When most people think of light, they think on or off . . . . But the observant scout will see there’s a hundred kinds of light. Just like there’s a hundred kinds of water. Each with its own set of rules” (225). Characters are like this. Stories are like this. Collections are like this. People and the world, I suppose too, are like this.
In the end, these stories that feature dead or dying wives, humans orphaned by Hurricane Katrina, Cold War prison tours, the pornographic shadows of the internet, and the boundary lines that split Korea ask: Why do we revisit scenes of pain and torture? What good does the retrieval of history accomplish? Is it better to leave or to arrive?
Adam Johnson avoids answers, for the most part, but he does suggest that the good and bad guys are of the same body, both justified and persecuted, moving across a sky that is neither lit by day nor darkened by night, only there and then not, at least not in the same way twice.
Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys.