Fortune Smiles presents six short stories, each narrated by a different voice which lends authenticity to the whole. Each of the narrators on the audio does an admirable job regarding accent, tone and emphasis. The characters take on a shape and personality that the listener can identify with and understand, if not, perhaps, like. All of the stories contain an element of humor, but that humor is sometimes dark and very subtle. In each story, someone is suffering or has caused suffering. In each story, someone is trying to come to terms with issues that confront them. Some are more successful than others. Johnson shows us how each of us views life through a different lens. Each of us makes a choice that leads us in one direction or another. Each of us has that choice to make, for good or ill. The book itself takes its title from the name of a Chinese Lottery in which everyone can be a winner. So that, too, is about choices made. All of the tickets have a winning combination; it is a scratch off ticket which will produce a winner every time if the scratcher scratches off the correct combination.
The first short story, Nirvana, is read by Jonathan McClain. A young husband has created a hologram of a recently assassinated, beloved president which has become enormously popular and appears everywhere. He talks to his hologram in order to relieve his stress. Meanwhile, his wife lies in a bed that is voice activated as she is suffering from a disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. She was expected to make a complete recovery from the paralysis that has overtaken her life, but so far, there has been no evidence of an improvement in her condition. He greatly fears that she will end her own life if she can figure out how to do it. All day she listens to the music of Kurt Cobain and his album called Nirvana. To ease her stress, and in order to ease his fear of her committing suicide, he creates something for her too, something that will give her the will to live, something to make her understand what her suicide would represent to others. Will it work? Will she understand why it is important to live or has she always understood?
In Hurricanes Anonymous, read by Dominic Hoffman, the New Orleans area recovering from the result of two devastating hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. A UPS driver, “Nonc” Randall Richard, makes deliveries to the flood ravaged area. After one delivery, he returns to his truck and discovers a child there, but he has no idea who has put him there. The child’s name is Geronimo. Geronimo’s mother, Marnie, has been raising him. Nonc, his father, has had little contact with him. Nonc is drawn to the child, and he immediately recognizes his responsibility but assumes it is going to be quite temporary. However, they bond, and become a part of each other’s lives.
At the same time that Geronimo appeared in his life, Nonc is told that his father is dying. They are estranged, but as Nonc and his girlfriend, Relle, try to get their lives together, hoping to keep Geronimo in their picture, they set off for California to his dad’s deathbed. The reader is left wondering if fortune will smile on all of them. Can Geronimo trust Nonc to return, Can Nonc trust Cherelle to stand by her end of the bargain, can he trust his father’s offer? Will he get there before his dad dies? Will UPS forgive his transgression? Nonc thinks of life as a series of events, from some you move on, but some he considers developments which push you in a new direction. Is this a development? Will he find a new direction?
Interesting Facts, is read by Cassandra Campbell, a very talented narrator. In the story, Charlotte dreams that she has cancer. Shortly after, she has a double mastectomy which forces her to think about her life, how it has changed and how she can adjust. She becomes very introspective, and her story is intense. She becomes obsessed with the breasts of others. She wonders about her husband’s fidelity. She wonders if he will find another women if she dies. Who will raise her children and love them as she does? She stops, often, in her monologue, and says, interesting facts, a comment her daughter used to make before her illness, but does no longer. She thinks about death, dead wives and what they leave behind. She thinks about her unpublished novels. Once, a professor told her to write about what she knew, and when her husband, a successful writer, decides to use a character from one of her stories for his next novel, she reacts with anger. This is what she knows! Is she no longer relevant? This is her story, not his. Are his or the children’s reactions to her illness appropriate? Will she only be a story to her children in the end, as she has concluded? Is she afraid of being forgotten? Will her story give meaning to her life? As cancer is a disease that cannot be contained, so is the title she has decided for her own story, Toucan Cereal. The title is meaningless. Does that indicate that she thinks her life is meaningless as she contemplates her mortality?
In George Orwell Was A Friend of Mine, read by W. Morgan Shepherd, we meet Hans, a former prison warden at an infamous Stasi prison in East Germany which was run by the Russians. The prison has been closed for several years and is now a memorial to the suffering that took place there. Hans believes he is innocent of any wrongdoing since all he did was make sure the prison ran efficiently. Abandoned by his wife, Gitte, and his daughter because of discoveries they have made about him, he is confused by the sudden appearance of packages on his property representing gifts he had previously given to his wife and daughter. He seems cruel and detached from what went on at the prison, seeming to have a blind eye to its horrors. His personality is so Germanic, cold and detached; he seems to believe that he just did his job and maintained the prison efficiently. He treats his little dog, Prince, very well, in stark contrast to the way the prisoners were treated under his watch. He denies the accusations of torture there and claims ignorance about what went on. Slowly, does he begin to recognize anything that should have concerned him while he was there? He still carries keys to prison rooms on his belt, so is there any real hope for him to see the light?
When he goes on a tour with a former prisoner, he is forced to face his past, but does he? Berta tells him that her suffering in prison caused her “to travel far away in her mind’” in order to get through the days. Does he come to believe that if he suffers, as his wife once did, perhaps he can locate her? Is it only after he stops feeling anything in his body that he is able to feel anything emotionally?
Dark Meadow is read by Will Damron. It is the story of a pedophile who is trying desperately to reform. He cannot contain his urges, but can he redirect them? Raped and photographed by the skipper of his sea scouts group, as a little boy, he has been irrevocably damaged. Dark Meadow is the nickname that the skipper gave him. He gave all the boys nicknames.
He is a very savvy computer expert and he is often called on to repair them. He is known in the world of child porn and has written an article advising those aficionados of child porn that once they sign onto certain sites, their identities are captured by the authorities. Is he trying to warn them or stop them? He is approached by law enforcement to help track down the pornographers who abuse little children by providing them with a code. Will he help? Does he find a way to turn his affliction into something good?
His neighbors across the street are two young girls. They are afraid of a Peeping Tom. Can he help them safe or will they tempt him? What choices will he make? At one point, Kurt Cobain reappears in this story. The girls sing about a girl who goes alone into the woods. It is a Cobain song. In his article he might have warned the child pornographers about the signal on their computer, can he now warn the officers by providing them with the signal code to capture them? Can he change his role to a protector of children?
In Fortune Smiles, read by Greg Chun, two men have escaped to North Korea, one willingly and one tricked into doing it. DJ was told that he had to leave South Korea, but he wouldn’t leave without his close friend, an older man named Sun-Ho. They had always worked together and protected each other. He tricked him into running with him. In North Korea, they were engaged in selling goods that were obtained illegally. However, the illegality occurred in several other countries before the merchandise reached them, so they didn’t feel guilty. It was simply the way things were done in their country.
In South Korea, DJ lives in a male dormitory, attends meetings designed to help him adjust to his new life and is provided with funds to live. Sun Ho does not attend his meetings. He tells stories about the life he is leading in South Korea, explaining that he goes to meetings with rich women in fancy neighborhoods. Sun Ho is infatuated with a girl, Willow, a girl who is unattainable who is in North Korea. In truth, he cannot adjust and thinks of returning to North Korea, to the life he knows, to the people he knows. Sun Ho does not let obstacles stand in his way. He cannot see himself living in this capitalistic society.DJ, on the other hand, enjoys the democratic way of life and has made a friend, Mina. She is searching for her husband who abandoned her in North Korea, stealing everything from her before he left. She loved the beauty of the landscape of North Korea; DJ loved the darkness at night. While DJ enjoys his new found freedom, Sun-Ho seems to resent it. He prefers obedience and strict rules, rules which he can break, oddly enough. He continues his old wayward ways in South Korea.
The Fortune Smiles lottery, which gives this story its name, gives everyone an equal chance to win. DJ understands that message. Sun Ho does not. In North Korea, they had produced counterfeit lottery tickets. Is it even possible for Sun Ho ever to adjust? Will he come to understand the benefit of having the freedom to make one’s own decisions? Having never had to make his own creative decisions before, is he perhaps too old to make them now? Johnson has gotten into the minds of his characters, expertly even as a male, in the mind of the female breast cancer sufferer. His insight is detailed and perceptive. Will fortune smile on any of the characters in these well-crafted stories? It is up to the reader to decide.