Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: Adios, Nirvana

Conrad Wesselhoeft
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
In the year since his twin brother's (Telemachus') death, brilliant teenage poet Jonathan has lost a bit of himself. He doesn't sleep, he rarely attends classes, and when he jumps off a bridge in a snow storm his best friends -- his thicks -- get even more worried about him. When it becomes clear that Jonathan's recent lack of dedication to school means he might get held back a grade, the only chance he has to make things right is an unusual job writing the biography and war memories of a blind and dying man.

Though there's a lot happening in this book, the narration is told so solidly from Jonathan's viewpoint that there's a huge distance between the reader and the action. This is because Jonathan himself is quite a bit removed from things. This is a 200-ish page book, and every page is very much set in the recesses of Jonathan's mind. It's a book that demands the reader be on board with the character above all else.

Luckily, Jonathan's a pretty awesome character. Though it took me longer than I would have liked to really be invested in this book, I think a lot of that was due to the fact that I expected more action and less inner monologuing from Jonathan. This is a character reeling from the death of his twin brother and best friend, whose only family left is his likewise dysfunctional mother, and who is very obviously in a place of desperation. Though we never see Telemachus alive, he is such an integral part of the story, and such a huge part of Jonathan, that he becomes a very real character. Somehow while reading this, I missed him as a character even though I only knew him through his brother Jonathan's memories and thoughts. This alone shows what a powerful character Jonathan is: he carries not only the entire story, mostly devoid of action and very very emotional/mental, but also manages to bring to life characters that the reader has otherwise no reason to care about. Jonathan, who never sleeps and runs on a steady diet of Red Bull and No-Doz, is the heart and soul of Adios, Nirvana, and aside from him there's honestly not a whole lot to talk about.

Sure, there's the plot -- the dying man whose memoirs Jonathan is writing, the deal he makes with the principal so that he doesn't get held back a grade, and the girl he finds himself drawn to, but those are more like sidenotes here. The book is all Jonathan and though his relationships with others, especially his best friends (his "thicks") are sparsely written, they're done so incredibly well. This book is the written equivalent of a simple painting that, with only a few brush strokes, manages to be strikingly vivid. While it took me a while to get into the book, by halfway through I was absolutely caught up in Jonathan's story. The themes this book tackles: life, death, art, what it means to care for another person and to be there for them, never felt overwrought or tacked-on. They were handled deftly and truly, making for a heart-touching sort of read. 

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