Drones, dreams, and a dead president in Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana”

2013-08-05 19.40.24

Palo Alto: “the hiss of sprinklers, blue recycling bins…”

I don’t usually read Esquire, but I spent some time browsing its website last night.  Here’s why: Adam Johnson, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize, has a short story, “Nirvana,” in this month’s issue.  (I’ve written about Adam and his Orphan Master’s Son here and here and here and here, among other places). His newest story is about love, death,  drones, hashboards from Bangalore, and a cyberspace resurrection of a dead president that’s been downloaded 14 million times – and it all takes place on “a normal Palo Alto night—the hiss of sprinklers, blue recycling bins, a raccoon digging in the community garden.”

The protagonist’s wife has Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition that leaves her paralyzed from the neck down. The couple live “at the edge of the medical literature.”  He talks to a dead president, she listens to Nirvana, “whose songs are all from a guy who blew his brains out.”  The rest twines the real and the unreal, the transhuman and the poignantly human.

You’ll be grateful I found the link for you (it’s not easy on the Esquire site).  It opens this way:


It’s late, and I can’t sleep.

I raise a window for some spring Palo Alto air, but it doesn’t help. In bed, eyes open, I hear whispers, which makes me think of the President because we often talk in whispers. I know the whisper sound is really just my wife, Charlotte, who listens to Nirvana on her headphones all night and tends to sleep-mumble the lyrics. Charlotte has her own bed, a mechanical one.


Pulitzer-winning author.

Yes, hearing the President whisper is creepy because he’s been dead now, what—three months? But even creepier is what happens when I close my eyes: I keep visualizing my wife killing herself. More like the ways she might try to kill herself, since she’s paralyzed from the shoulders down. The paralysis is quite temporary, though good luck trying to convince Charlotte of that. She slept on her side today, to fight the bedsores, and there was something about the way she stared at the safety rail at the edge of the mattress. The bed is voice-activated, so if she could somehow get her head between the bars of the safety rail, “incline” is all she’d have to say. As the bed powered up, she’d be choked in seconds. And then there’s the way she stares at the looping cable that descends from the Hoyer lift, which swings her in and out of bed.

What can really keep a guy up at night is the knowledge that she doesn’t need an exotic exit strategy, not when she’s exacted a promise from you to help her do it when the time comes.

I rise and go to her, but she’s not listening to Nirvana yet—she tends to save it for when she needs it most, after midnight, when her nerves really start to crackle.

“I thought I heard a noise,” I tell her. “Kind of a whisper.”

Short, choppy hair frames her drawn face, skin faint as refrigerator light.

“I heard it, too,” she says.

Read the rest here.


One Response to “Drones, dreams, and a dead president in Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana””

  1. Ava Ramirez Says:

    This has to be my 2nd favorite writing in the week, i can’t let you know the top,
    it might offend you!