Reviewed by Seth Rogoff
Remember when there was homophobia in the United States? Oh, right, the Vice President is Mike Pence . . . Nevermind. Reading Aaron Hamburger's latest novel Nirvana Is Here creates something of a bizarre disorientation: on the one hand, many of the dilemmas of protagonist Ari Silverman's coming-of-age as a gay Jewish boy in the Detroit suburbs in the early 1990s seem (thankfully) out of date. On the other hand, the atmosphere of anxiety, intolerance, and violence that Hamburger brilliantly establishes feels resurgent. Nirvana Is Here is, among other things, a book about nostalgia—an aching or longing for a "going home," which necessitates, at the same time, a confrontation with one's deepest wounds. This "going home" requires an attempt to create narrative coherence and meaning from the past. The result of Hamburger's quest is an expertly written, bold, funny, serious novel.
Nirvana Is Here runs on two parallel tracks. The framing narrative, told from an omniscient perspective, focuses on Ari Silverman in the present. Silverman is a professor of medieval history—an expert on love and romance—at a university in Washington D.C. He is coming off a nasty breakup with his now ex-husband M, a poet and member of the faculty at the same college, and finds himself sitting on a committee assigned to assess and potentially punish his ex for groping a student in a hot tub at a party. M is a kind of sexual foil for Silverman. While the adult Professor Silverman is portrayed as having a rather weak libido, M is a bundle of hormones, impulses, and drives. The narrator tells us, "Sometimes, Ari liked M's blunt passion. It was a relief never having to make the first move, to let M take the lead when it came to sex. M brought a certain energy to his quiet existence, broke up its pleasant monotony just enough to make him feel alive."
Silverman's thoughts about M's case play out against the more significant narrative backdrop of a pending meeting with Justin Jackson, Silverman's (clandestine) lover from high school, who is now in a heterosexual marriage and is the CEO of an online dating site called "Shut Up and Kiss Me." The two are set to see each other for the first time since high school at a Valentine's Day college basketball game, sponsored by Jackson's business. Anticipation of the meeting with Jackson creates a bridge between the contemporary narrative and Silverman's much longer and more substantial first-person account of his childhood.
Young Silverman grows up in a Jewish community in the Detroit suburbs. His father is a dentist, a kind man, though a reflection of Reagan's America and its conservative values, especially about gender. Silverman's mother is an artist, designing custom ketubot, or Jewish wedding contracts. His older brother David is a suburban hippie and a student at the University of Michigan when Silverman's account begins. Ari attends the Lev Stern Hebrew Academy.
Silverman is an awkward boy, an outsider. He is confused by the tangle of desires that he feels as he moves through puberty and into a kind of sexual awakening, not having the tools in his relatively enclosed context to understand and express himself. Ari's withdrawal into himself and general confusion create the impression of incredible vulnerability in the character—and Hamburger captures this sensation wonderfully. There is an almost desperate, searching loneliness here, like when Ari finds himself at the American Jewish heterosexual ritual par excellence, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah party. Ari relates:
So while my classmates rocked back and forth in each other's arms, I sipped a Coke at the edge of the dance floor and warbled along faintly to whatever syrupy pop ballad was playing, as if to say, I can be one of you, give me a chance! But the notes rang false. It was like reciting a prayer for a religion that wasn't mine.
Perhaps all would have been fine with Ari Silverman if he had been left alone to find his way, even amid the conformist suburbia where he was growing up. But the truth is—and Hamburger powerfully reminds us of this—people in Ari Silverman's circumstances are rarely, if ever, left alone. Where there is an outsider, there is a persecutor of the outsider, a self-appointed enforcer of the conformist status quo.
Enter Mark Taborsky, the son of a local rabbi. The Taborskys move in across the street and Mark sizes up Ari quickly, cowing him into performing sexual acts in the school's storage room while spouting aggressive heterosexual, misogynistic rhetoric. Taborsky's sadistic drive culminates in the event that resounds throughout the novel, his rape of Ari at knifepoint on the kitchen floor of the Silverman house.
Traumatized by the sexual assault, Ari transfers to fancy Dalton for high school. Just as he seems to be falling hopelessly into solitude, he gets paired with Justin Jackson, a black student from Detroit proper, as study partners. Justin introduces Ari to the band Nirvana and Ari falls in love with the band's Seattle grunge sound, the voice of its lead singer Kurt Cobain, and with Justin. Justin and Ari are a study in contrasts: black/white, gentile/Jew, inner city/suburban; Justin is good at math, Ari at history, and so on. They find common ground through music, which opens up a kind of erotic space for them to explore sensual, sexual desires. Hamburger does well to transcend the narrow limits of identity categories as he slowly, beautifully builds up this relationship—focusing instead on the energy and connection between the characters. The two boys relate to each other as teenagers, meaning awkwardly, clumsily, immaturely, and unfairly. Despite this, their relationship is authentic—and it creates the context for Ari to start to know himself.
For all of its emphasis on growth and development, Nirvana Is Here allows for important ambiguities and ambivalences to remain. The teenage Silverman's confrontations, years after the assault, with Mark Taborsky are richly gestural and perplexing. Similarly, adult Silverman's encounter with CEO Justin Jackson remains partial, preliminary, halting. Finding one's story might be self-realizing, but even the most skillful narratives eventually run up against stubborn, resistant phenomena.