K.M. Soehnlein's You Can Say You Knew Me When is an epic, rapturous and complex urban tale, an account of fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, lovers and friends. Thirty-something radio journalist Jamie Garner embarks on a journey back to his childhood home, and in the process discovers the ghosts of his father's perplexing past. Now living an independent life in San Francisco, Jamie reluctantly returns to Greenlawn, New Jersey upon hearing of the death of his father, Teddy Garner. His younger sister Deirdre has begged him to come back for the funeral, but she's upset that Jamie didn't do more to help out with his father's illness.
Over the years, Jamie's relationship with Teddy was fraught with difficulty. The issue of his son's sexual orientation a constant barrier, an image etched in Teddy's mind of Jamie as a teenager, on his knees in front of Eric, his best friend from school, "in the midst of worship, surrender." Teddy's initial reaction was shock, to deny the facts, disapproval and denial in equal measure: "no way is my son this kind of boy."
But Teddy, his mind ravaged from Alzheimer's disease is now dead, and Jamie long since had stopped caring, making peace with their estrangement, " I stopped making my self crazy because my father disapproved of me, and this stopping had unburdened me." Yet Teddy's presence remains stronger than it had been for years, the funeral causing the memories of their life together flood back to Jamie.
Whilst sorting his father's possessions, he finds a taped-up box marked San Francisco June 60 - June 61, containing letters, photos and a journal, a reminder that Teddy had once lived in Jamie's adopted city. The items providing a window into his father's erotic life, a place of Beatniks, where one worked odd jobs, and had encounters with the legendary Jack Kerouac.
Jamie becomes mesmerized by the photos, one in particular, hinting at an illicit affair, his father pale slimmed and board chested, pulled in close by an impossibly good looking friend, the actor Dean Foster, his eyes and lips "working in tandem to ignite desire" - the prime male friendship of his father's life, covered in secrecy, a forty year silence that Jamie longs to know about.
Upon his return to San Francisco, Jamie is determined to uncover the truth about his father. Teddy gradually becoming a kind of character for him, not a middle-aged father, but someone straight out of Kerouac novel, an erotically charged man from San Francisco's past. Did Jamie's father really have an affair with a man? Teddy was never known to have close relationships with other men and he had undoubtedly failed to find any real connection with his only son.
Like his father before him, Jamie is possessed with a kind of wanderlust; an ineffable yearning which is gradually tearing him apart. He wants to have a monogamous relationship with his venture capitalist boyfriend Woody, but his initial enthusiasm is masked by an inner torment. It starts with a hurried sexual encounter with a man in the rest room of the airport, " a random collision that should mean nothing but alters everything." Then the cruising starts, hooking up with men on the prowl.
Jamie is progressively set adrift, overwhelmed by desire "like a primal ooze, sticky and inescapable as a tar pit," and is caught up in a sexualized chain of men, who carry his desire. Jamie admits that he's been living on the edge; and that he needs to get a grip on his finances, which means smoking less pot, and honing in his erratic behaviour.
But with his friends gradually shifting their loyalties and drawing away from him, and Woody suddenly enforcing a "time-out" from the relationship, Jamie finds himself alone, steadily descending into the sex clubs, and the promiscuity, the deepest, darkest closet of San Francisco. As Jamie yields to desire, his father's voice appears from the page inside his head, "a voice rising up from history, from secrecy and from the dead."
Although Jamie is an adult with his life experience well and truly written on his body, inside, he's still a boy, who puts off responsibility and the big decisions indefinitely. Jamie, in his journey to discover the secrets of his father, realizes that he's not that much different from Teddy. Teddy ended up leading a quiet life of routine in the suburbs of New Jersey, but Jamie sees a glimmer of how his father might have taken a different course, not safely and smoothly into the nuclear family, but deeper into risk.
You Can Say You Knew Men When is a startling evocation of San Francisco in the nineties, where the future is the Internet, the technological revolution turning this arty, sleepy city into a Mecca for the new industrialists. The narrative is seamless and multi-faceted, with Soehnlein transporting his protagonist through two worlds as he searches for a connection, constantly usurped by his own desires, lost in a shadowy world of sex and drugs.
For all his faults, Jamie is a sympathetic, talented, but often sad character as he navigates the perfidious territory of his father's past. This young man must undoubtedly make peace with the ghost of his father before he can continue to live an honest and better life. Mike Leonard April 06.