The Bottom Line: ‘Fortune Smiles’ By Adam Johnson

When a spur-of-the-moment mix-up forces Dongjoo — a protagonist in one of Adam Johnson’s National Book Award-winning short stories — to hurriedly defect from North Korea, he acclimates quickly enough to the modern comforts of the South. He even changes his name to something hip-sounding, something with that Gangnam air of exportable cool: DJ. He doesn’t know that the letters carry meaning other than a shortened version of his given name until a South Korean teen explains it to him: “The DJ, he’s a kind of artist. He takes different kinds of music , you know, funky and strange and old-fashioned, even bad music you wouldn’t normally like. Then he mixes it all together. That mix, that’s the DJ’s brand, that’s who he is.”

Contemporary South Korean mash-up culture, with its warring influences of fast food joints and traditional, uniformed school kids, is simultaneously alluring and off-putting to DJ, who’s mostly thankful to no longer rely on unscrupulous acts — printing and selling lottery tickets with no winner among them — in order to eat each night. He feels indebted to his close friend and mentor Sun-ho, who got caught up in the last-minute act of defecting, and who isn’t as enthusiastic about his new home as DJ.

Johnson writes about their relationship, and the brutal beauty of their previous lives in North Korea, in the third-person. Necessarily, he observes from a distance, and so his characterization of the place and its people is almost clinical. Through DJ he brings harsh North Korean winters to life in scenes peopled by women in fur coats and students full of naive hope about their country’s future. But each scene glistens with the sheen of globalization, with references to wealthy Gangnam and greasy burgers. Sun-ho’s reverence of centuries-old patriotic music wraps these details —> Read More