Friday, March 24th, 2023

Aaron Hamburger with Nirvana Is Here in San Francisco, 2019

The book (expanded from my Amazon Vine review)

For admirers, such as me, of the first two books by Aaron Hamburger (born in 1973), the 2004 collection of stories mostly set in postcommunist Prague, and The View from Stalin’s Head and Faith for Beginners, a 2005 novel centered on an American Jewish family’s vacation in Israel, it has been a long wait for a third book/second novel. The first book won the Rome Prize and in the year’s residency at the American Academy in Rome, Hamburger said he was writing a novel set in Berlin.

The novel that finally emerged fourteen years after the first, Nirvana Is Here, is long (372 pages, not the 330 Amazon lists). It has the feel of a first novel both in that it mostly recalls adolescent trauma and yearning and in that its protagonist’s name, Ari, is not very different from the author’s (Aaron, who also grew up in the Detroit area in a Jewish bubble, attended a private high school, and then went to the University of Michigan.)

I don’t know whether the main relationships in the novel, a rape by the son of a rabbi who lived across the street from Ari, or the frustrating slow attempted seduction of Justin, a handsome and charismatic black classmate from “the city” (Detroit), who seems to be straight but eventually does some “fooling around” with Ari, have autobiographical bases. They have verisimilitude whatever their basis (in fact or imagination or some combination) is.

That others have same-sex attraction was more obvious to Generation Xers than it was to Baby Boomers (such as myself), but sorting out sexuality does not appear to have been that much easier, although Ari learns that three of his classmates and the librarian who becomes his English teacher also have such feelings. He does not figure out that rape is more about power than about sexuality, and does not come to terms with the traumatic memory.

There is a lot of self-deprecating humor both about the 40-something medieval history professor and the 13-17-year-old boy (he had skipped a grade, so was younger than his private school classmates), but also ironies of others, including a less-than-fully-accepting mother.

There is also a lot about Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and other grunge-rock bands important to Ari and some other Generation Xers. Though the music is after my time, the fascination to the edge of fixation is comprehensible to someone who did not grow up with the music (Hamburger has written elsewhere that he did not hear a Nirvana album until he was in college at the University of Michigan, older than Ari was when he heard and starting obsessing on it.)

I found the novel a good if sometimes painful (pain-filled) read. I thought it could be shorter, but the cut that seemed most obvious to me (an interlude on the Côte d’azur) is one that especially charmed me in retrospect.

The author

As I expected, Aaron Hambuger (born in Detroit in 1973), even on a grueling book tour, was quite charming. Asked if he himself attended a private high school, he said he had, though one less preppy (uniformed) than the one in Nirvana Is Now. For the book, which he says was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s 1891 Tess of the d’Urbervilles (he ascertained that only one of the twenty members of the audience had read Hardy’s novel), he appropriated the name of an east coast very preppy academy, Dalton.

I knew that he did not discover Nirvana/Kurt Corbain until he was in college at the University of Michigan. He said that he had done several drafts of the novel without the main characters’ cult of Nirvana, but that its presence for the time frame of sophomore-junior-senior of the protagonist fit perfectly (if a bit later than his own high school time).

He said that the first draft began with the rape. He was warned that this very heavy material if frontloaded might discourage readers before they found out that the book is a high school romance (less frustrated than those of many of is!), and he spread the information across the book.
He volunteered the information that he had not had a relationship like the one in the book. When he was in high school, he recalled, he did not know that he was gay or that one could be such a thing. He just knew that he wanted to spend all his time with a close male friend.

I asked what happened to the novel set in contemporary Berlin that he said he was writing when he went to the American Academy in Rome, after winning the Rome Prize for The View from Stalin’s Head. He said that he drafted it, but no publisher was interested, and eventually when he tried to look at it, the words blurred, and he gave it up.

He said that he had finished a draft of a new novel set in 1922-23 Cuba just before taking off on this book tour. His grandmother had made it to Cuba and tried to enter the US at Key West. She was deported back to Cuba, though eventually immigrating legally.

He was lobbying senators about immigration. D.C. doesn’t have one, and he took on his earlier being from Michigan and went to talk to Debbie Stanhow. He told her his grandmother’s story. When he asked what he could do to advance the cause, she told him “Tell her story. You’re a writer!” And he has, happily working over the manuscript flying from D.C. to Seattle. (He currently teaches at George Washington University and at the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program in southern Maine.

David Mura is the only other name on the faculty there I recognize.)
In general, he thinks that words on the screen look too definitive and enjoys working on the printed-out text. His goal is to work 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

BTW, he said he did almost as much research on the 1990s for Nirvana as he has done on the 1920s (in Cuba yet).

© 6 June 2019, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.