“Nirvana is Here: A Novel” by Aaron Hamburger— Back to the Present

Hamburger, Aaron. “Nirvana Is Here: A Novel”, Three Rooms Press, 2019.

Back to the Present

Amos Lassen

With social media today, it is possible to find old friends that perhaps we have not thought about for many years and I must admit I am guilty of doing just that. In Aaron Hamburger’s new book, “Nirvana is Here”, we meet Ari Silverman, a Medieval Historian who is able to reconnect with Justin Jackson, his high school obsession who is now married (to a woman) and the first African-American CEO of a successful dating website. Any kind of reconnection can be emotional and hard to deal with and it is a good idea for one to prepare himself first. As Ari gets ready to see Justin for the first time in twenty years, he begins to remember the relationship they shared in the suburbs of Detroit. What were secrets back then are not necessarily secrets today. Things were very different during the early 1990s and there are secrets that they still share. But Ari has something else on his mind as well— his ex-husband has been accused of sexually harassing a student. We suspect that these two issues will come together causing Ari to make a decision that can totally change him. As we meet the characters, writer Hamburger has us face issues of identity, race, sex, and family and as we deal with them, we learn something more about who we really are.

I became a fan of Aaron Hamburger with “The View From Stalin’s Head” and “Faith for Beginners” and for whatever reason, I felt that he was writing to and for me directly. Many of you know that I have spent a lot of time researching and understanding the Jewish LGBT community so when Hamburger told me about his new book, I jumped at the change to read it, include it in the canon and write about it and I was definitely not disappointed.

Ari has never let go of the past and now, removed from it by two decades, the trauma of an assault from when he was so much younger comes back to him and the only perspective he feels will help him  is to reconnect with Justin, the boy he had such a crush on. As he thinks about this, he remembers that there are still secrets they shared and still share.  It does not happen often but every once in a while, a book comes along that blows me away and “Nirvana Is Here” is one such book. It made me smile and it devastated me but more than anything else, it kept me reading… in fact, I devoured it in one sitting, reading all the way through the night. I saw so much of myself in Ari just as I am sure that other readers will find themselves in him as well. Quite simply, this is a coming of age story but it is also so much more; it is a story of recovery and dealing with both past and present as set against the band Nirvana. For me, this was a weak point since I had lived out of the country when Nirvana was at its height and all that I have ever know about the band is its name. Hamburger beautifully captures the decade of the 90s and his characters who come of age then.

From the moment I began to read, I had the strange feeling that Ari is not just a character in this novel but someone who I knew and was part of my present life. We see him as both a 41-year-old Medieval History professor and a traumatized high school student who is struggling. with his own sexual identity. It seems to me that the focus of the book is on Ari’s teenage years that so heavily impact his later life.

Most of the book is a reflection on the past with surprises. We learn why Ari transferred to a different high school, and we read how his friendship with Justin developed over the years.  I had better stop because I feel that I am getting very close to writing a spoiler and I do not want to do that because I want everyone to have the same beautiful experience reading this book that I had. I want to personally thank Aaron Hamburger for returning to our literature—it feels like it has been a long time since “Faith for Beginners” (2005). I do hope that he will pull up a chair and stay awhile.

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