Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

I’m half-done with The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s a wild ride, and for once the praise of a contemporary novel is on target. I’ve only read a bit about the author Johnson, and finding that some of his favorite books are Libra, The Mosquito Coast, and Blood Meridian was comforting; I too love all three of those, especially Libra, which is becoming the book that Blood Meridian used to be to me, a book I can discuss for hours without repeating myself.

There’s a lot of DeLillo in The Orphan Master’s Son, namely in the dialogue, which is modern and sharp and sharp-witted. A good chunk of the early book takes place on a fishing boat, and Johnson keys into the likely fact that fishermen are the same the world over, in the present and in the past (go back to Galilee if you want), and that North Korean fisherman might be like their fellow humans in free lands, filled with wit and swagger and hapless bravado. There’s a spookiness to Johnson’s prose added by the setting, and the roughhouse stuff when it happens–kidnappings both botched and successful, a brutal beating and interrogation that folds in on itself like an odd creation myth–gives a reader pause. Jun Do is a tough hero who lives by his wits, works, and deeds, and it is difficult to get a line on what he might become, if anything, in a free land. Johnson is not capable of easy or neat chapters, thank goodness, and calm is usually followed by unexpected fright.

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