“You Can Say You Knew Me When”– like father, like son

Soehlein, K.M. “You Can Say You Knew Me When”. Kensington Books, 2005.

Like Father, Like Son

Amos Lassen

Any time a book arrives from Kensington Books, I know that I am in for an interesting read and K.M. Soehnlein’s “You Can Say You Knew Me When” did not disappoint. It is a wonderful novel of manners which was an immensely enjoyable read as it tells of Jamie Garner, a charming underachiever who lives a slacker’s life in San Francisco while the dot.com boom is surrounding him and everything he does. Jamie ignores the important things around him—he avoids his career as a radio producer and his relationship and instead chooses to surround himself with a group of fun loving friends.

Suddenly Jamie gets a phone call telling him that his father who has never really accepted him is dead. This means he must return home to bury a man who never could stand him and to a life he escaped and to a family devoid of feeling. He is trapped between guilt and grief. When he returns home, he loses himself in a box of memorabilia that belonged to his father and he becomes determined to get to know the father he never knew. The box is marked “1960”, the year his father spent in San Francisco but never spoke of. Jamie also finds in the box a photo of a very good looking man named Dean Foster who was his dad’s closest friend and who had disappeared mysteriously.

Getting clues from the box, Jamie begins a quest and seeks out the people that were mentioned in his father’s letters and in doing so discovers a subculture he knew nothing about and about which he realizes he could risk so much in his pursuit of the truth. What we see is a truly dysfunctional character in Jamie and that his own relationship with his lover, Woody, was very similar to the strange relationship his father had with Dean. Jamie is determined to destroy everything of importance except for the ghosts of his father’s past. By doing this he discovers how weak his own relationships are and his determination to “out” his own father renders Jamie into a truly miserable character. He becomes one of the few heroes in a novel that I chose not to identify with.

What is amazing about this book is how the author manages to juggle two distinct plots running concurrently. Not only are the plots separate but they are divided even more by a forty year difference. There are also some very sexy passages in this book and a few distractions as well. There are long sections of the book that do not seem necessary until you close the covers and think about what you have read  and then everything falls naturally into place. Understanding Jamie’s father allows for the understanding of Jamie himself. One thing the book did to me was to make me challenge myself to find a deeper meaning as well as a deep soul. It is an epic story of fathers and sons, brothers and sisters and lovers and friends. As Jamie is torn apart by his discovering things about his father, the reader is also torn apart by the plot of the novel.

The book is an evocation of San Francisco and the future of the internet. The narrative is multi-faceted as our hero roams through two different yet inter-related worlds. Jamie comes across as a sympathetic and talented but sad young man trodding on the past of his father and trying to find himself in the process. He must unravel the mystery of his father in order to be able to live a full live. The author has secured himself a place in the gay canon and seems destined one day to join the greats of the genre—Andrew Holleran, David Leavitt, Michael Cunningham and Edmund White among others. This is not what I would call an easy read but it is a most enjoyable trek into the gay mind.

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