You have your thicks, your Vodka-laced grapes, your priceless cherry red Ric 360-6 guitar, donated by none other than the great Eddie Vedder. The death of a twin brother, and a sixteen year-old’s subsequent angst mixed with taurine-laced poetry writing and jam sessions. Now you’re immersed in Adios, Nirvana, a YA novel by Conrad Wesselhoeft, who proves that he has been a perspicacious observer of teenagers long enough to truly get them. From jumping off a bridge and plummeting into a snow-laden bush, to singing songs about hot MILFs and jacking off, everything rings true here.
There is a resounding quality to the story of Jonathan, a junior veering on the edge of repeating his academic year unless he agrees to write the biography of David O.H. Cosgrove II, a blind WWII vet with a remarkable experience of survival to share. There are doubts, though, from the get go. Jonathan almost kills himself after plummeting off a bridge in a drunken haze. The lingering dimness of his twin brother Telemachus’ passing still clings to him and his mom, Mimi. Not to mention that his father is a deadbeat starting a new family with a tiny Asian woman and small child. Clearly, Jonathan’s life is unhinged, but this is an aspect he never dramatizes or panders to in hopes of garnering sympathy. No, Jonathan is a guy content with coasting through life, sustaining himself on Special K, bananas, and Red Bull, trying to worship the shrine that Tele’s room has become since his death several months before.
There are a lot of people trying to string Jonathan along. Principal Gupti not only eggs him on to pen Cosgrove’s life, but also gives him another ultimatum: to play a cheesy rock song by her favorite band at graduation. Javon, Kyle, Nick, and Jordan, Jonathan’s best buds, help him prime and paint his house and wolf down microwave burritos and tater tots to remind him that life is still worth living. Yet his “thicks” come across as little more than supplemental; devoid of any unique traits or even physical descriptions, they are easily forgotten. However, the depth of Cosgrove’s haunting wartime memories, coupled with his blindness, make him venerable and sagacious. He and Jonathan establish a relationship that is amicable, but not overly sentimental. Notable also is the presence of Agnes, another resident of Delphi House who adamantly tells Jonathan to “free the swimmers in the dark” and “float a turd.” She is an excellent representation of the way Wesselhoeft deftly moves between comedic banter and stirring reflections on the interplay of life, death, and sickness.
If Jonathan’s tasks are overwhelming, it’s only tangible in the last few chapters, which feel rushed as Conrad throws short, choppy sentences at us. Jonathan’s coming of age doesn’t draw upon skimpy sob stories, but rather his well-written poetry, his chill lifestyle, and his keen observations of the shitty and the good things around him. Tragedy, fiery creativity, and a brazenly honest sexuality give Jonathan as much depth as that of Holden Caulfield and Jerry Renault.
With well-placed references to Walt Whitman, a fluid use of creative similes and metaphors, and an unbridled view of life in the house of the sick and dying, Conrad Wesselhoeft delivers an enduring story of maturation and healing. One that clings, digs, and serves as an eternal torch. Shining through many forms of darkness.