The weird tenderness of Adam Johnson

| @neuralarts

As a reader, I become a spirit. I enter a character’s thoughts and feelings, then drift out to watch as they live their lives.

I may believe I’m simply an observer, but something more mysterious is happening.

In Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson’s give us six short stories about people who dwell on the fringes of society: a UPS driver delivering packages to parking lots and junkyards in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a computer programmer with a terminally ill wife, a former Stasi prison administrator, two North Korean defectors living in South Korea.

There’s no dense prose and little flowery language here but that’s not to say the style is plain, only that it is deceptive in its simplicity. Johnson puts us in the skins of his characters and even when he allows us to drift, it’s never very far. It’s just enough. Each story is pared to essentials, though many details don’t appear essential for a while.

“A single look can tell an entire story, so often I crop pictures down to the eyes- –eyes fallen, eyes without focus, eyes closed, the pinwheel of an eye that’s seeing something far different than what’s before it, or a single, daring upward glance.”

Eyes trained to another horizon are a recurring theme. Just as they exist in a liminal space in society, ostracized by the past, by accident, or their own choice, these characters often live in the limina between their ‘real’ and their imagined lives. Every story pulses with the tension between the present and the past or future, whether it’s the husband grieving for the disease killing his wife or the Stasi captain denying any wrongdoing in the past.

Johnson traces the threads that bind our selves together and the tears in the fabric with a piercing clarity. Yet it’s a clarity balanced by an acceptance, nearly a celebration, of human frailty because it’s in the times we are most vulnerable that we are the most human.

He has a poignant sense of how hard we each work at times simply to keep ourselves contained, in one place, and not break apart into shards or explode. Each of these characters is holding their lives together, in spite of. In spite of loss, fear, and loneliness. In spite of their past and their history. And they’re constructing the anchors to bind them in place from whatever they can find.

We are all lost, in our own ways. These are stories not only about our loss, but about the condition of being lost and grappling for a foothold or a dream that glues us together for another day.

Nonc, our UPS driver in Hurricanes Anonymous, hauling around a young child who may or not be his, has one goal: find the child’s mother. But when the reality of her situation is discovered, he quickly appoints another goal, following it just as single-mindedly.

In Interesting Facts, a wife and mother struggles to make a place for herself in the lives of her husband and children. “The most vital things,” she says, “we hide even from ourselves.”

Hans, our Stasi commandant in George Orwell was a Friend of Mine, can’t help but return to the interrogation facility and prison he oversaw. Now it’s a museum, with guided tours detailing the atrocities committed there. Franz can’t accept the consequences of his past occupation nor the loss of his wife and child. For him, it was simply a job. A job he came home from to his family, bearing trinkets stolen from incoming prisoners.

In luring us into the lives of these characters so precisely yet so delicately, Adam Johnson achieves a kind of alchemical transference that left me nearly breathless. His skill is bound up in a confidence and a stillness, as well as an appreciation of the melancholy comfort of loss. He understands how we all grapple awkwardly with our own sharp points and rough edges.

“’Have you ever done anything bad?” I ask the girls. The Cub stares into space. She says a slow ‘Yeah,’ like she’s visualizing a graveyard of her bad ten-year-old decisions and the wasteland of their consequences.”

Later, after finishing this particular story, Dark Meadow, I was in a grocery store. A mother was pushing her cart and her ten-year-old daughter was ahead, part walking/part dancing, studying her feet on the checkerboard floor. Johnson’s story was still sounding in my chest as I tossed things into my cart.

The mother stopped at the end of an aisle and called to her: “Hold on a minute, my sweet girl.” It was spoken without thought, the mother already turning up the aisle, yet tears welled in my eyes. I nearly cried, there in the pasta aisle, at the beautiful and offhand tendernesses we afford each other.

That’s what the best writing does, it helps us see and listen to the world around us a little more acutely. It reminds us of emotional muscles we haven’t flexed in a while. That’s what makes it art. And absolutely indispensable. !

STEVE MITCHELL’s short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC.