Pulitzer Prize–winner Adam Johnson is renowned for taking us places we don’t want to go: North Korean gulags, Stasi prisons, into the heads of pedophiles, even the broken hearts of mothers dying of cancer. How does he get away with it? Why do we follow him? And why are the results so gratifying, even moving?
Johnson’s gift is his ability to Virgil us through hell and back and make the experience worthwhile. Confident and sure-footed as a storyteller, his fiction never feels gratuitous; he doesn’t exert more pressure than we can stand. Likewise, his characters don’t demand our attention, let alone our empathy; they end up earning it by virtue of being thoroughly human. It can be exhausting, at times, to feel for someone whom you could easily despise, the same way it can be terrifying to stand at a precipice and glance down at the deepest chasms of human nature. But it is exhilarating, too.
In his gripping, 1984-like novel The Orphan Master’s Son, even the grimmest situation never gives way to despair. Nor does he pause to wallow in the many instances of injustice. Instead, he shows us the myriad ways people manage to survive no matter what. The story is so propulsive the pages all but turn themselves, and it produces details of life in North Korea that are wonderfully sticky: no one, afterward, could think of canned peaches the same way again.
But in Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson is tackling material that is so dramatic and high-stakes it seems almost surreal. In his new collection of stories, Fortune Smiles, he brings the same talent to topics mundane and domestic. Four of the six tales take place in an at least semi-recognizable version of the United States, albeit one with some sci fi elements, and even without despotic governments to function as antagonists, his passionate characters hold our focus. They keep fighting, sometimes desperately, sometimes pointlessly, always with the kind of commitment you have to, at least on some level, respect.
“‘Seek your inner resolve,'” a hologram of an assassinated U.S. President tells a brilliant programmer with a suffering wife in Johnson’s first story, “Nirvana.” All of Johnson’s protagonists follow this advice, whether they are dealing with the messy aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the equally messy aftermath of a breakup (“Hurricanes Anonymous”) or, like the cancer-stricken mother—married to a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist named Adam Johnson, no less—are forced to watch, enraged, as her family figures out how to move on without her (“Interesting Facts,” which, for its slow-burning, lyrical fury, now stands as one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever encountered). In many cases, inner resolve is all these bruised yet defiant characters have left. It’s fascinating to watch how far it can take them.
Johnson is the kind of writer who leads us to interrogate ourselves about what we want from fiction. We say we want love stories and happy endings, that we enjoy seeing virtue rewarded and bad guys snuffed out. We applaud satisfying twists and even more satisfying resolutions. Few among us would request to spend time with, let alone develop empathy for, the unrepentant administrator of an East German torture prison who says things like, “‘I do not need to recall the past. I am certain of what it was'” (“George Orwell Was A Friend Of Mine”), or a middle-aged loner both drawn to, and drawn to protect, underage girls (“Dark Meadows”). Johnson reminds us that we crave, even need, the darkness and complexity of these anti-heroes as much as the satisfaction of seeing good win out over evil.
Like Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories and the powerful tales of Kelly Link, Johnson’s stories make us think without making us work. They challenge our preconceptions without resorting to lectures or moralizing, and best of all they manage to entertain us along the way.