A father’s surprising past
ANYONE who has ever peeked at a friend’s diary or stayed awake to surprise Santa will recognize the blend of sadness and gratification that colors K.M. Soehnlein’s second novel, “You Can Say You Knew Me When.” The protagonist, 33-year-old Jamie Garner, is a freelance San Francisco radio producer whose already weak grasp on the mundane virtues of bill paying, sexual fidelity and moderation in drug use is further shaken by the death of his estranged father. When Jamie travels back to suburban New Jersey for the funeral, he discovers a shoebox of souvenirs from 1960, the year his father lived in San Francisco, and begins investigating just how much of a swingin’ hepcat -- how much, perhaps, like Jamie -- his intolerant father had been at the age of 20.
In the box is a travel journal recounting Teddy Garner’s search for kicks and self-knowledge in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, written in a watery version of Kerouac’s rambling, ecstatic prose. That Teddy is able to knock off his hero’s voice so accurately testifies to his identification with him: Both are tender men with bellicose streaks, combustible mixtures of machismo and vulnerability. At first, Jamie doesn’t know how much to believe of his father’s account. Then a friend advises: “Anything he brags about, he’s embellishing. Anything he’s evasive about, it really happened.... Like Kerouac.”
Set mostly in early 2000, in the final months of the dot-com boom, Soehnlein’s story carries the uneven shimmer of recent history, often with a documentary quality. When the FedEx deliveryman comes by, Jamie doesn’t simply sign for the package but uses “the little electronic pen on his portable data box.” Jamie’s life is as emblematic of his historical moment as his father’s was of the late Beat era, when tour buses to “Beatnik Land” had already begun stopping at City Lights bookstore and the Cafe Vesuvio. Woody, Jamie’s squeaky-clean boyfriend, works late hours at his start-up firm, rewarding himself with a cellphone and an SUV, while Jamie nurtures his countercultural credentials by puffing his way through a grocery bag of third-rate pot.
No San Franciscan will fail to recognize Jamie as a “type”: radical politics and liberal hair gel. He echoes the “bike messenger’s battle cry” to “curtail the money-hungry frenzy, notch back the arrogance of the virtual millionaires, correct the madness! Maybe we’d get a moratorium on the overpriced condos glutting my block; maybe artists and musicians would stop losing their leases; maybe I’d find fewer SUV’s on Valencia nipping at my back tire. Vindication for those of us who hadn’t profited from the boom and never wanted it in the first place.”
His pot dealer, Anton, delivers some perspective: “You think this neighborhood is changing because there’s valet parking on the block, but I thought it started changing when you showed up.”
Jamie’s search for connection with his father soon narrows to the faint trail of evidence of the young Teddy’s experimentation with men. There is an element of revenge in Jamie’s ingenious pursuit of this tangent, an urge to turn the tables on an inflexible, moralistic parent. But the result is double-edged. Whatever Teddy did in San Francisco, he later repudiated. Jamie risks learning that his father understood him better than he thought, and still turned his back.
In Soehnlein’s essay “Putting Gay Fiction Back Together” from the recent collection “Bookmark Now,” edited by Kevin Smokler, he describes the heyday of gay fiction in the late 1980s to mid-1990s as a time when “gay writers understood their mission in the grandest terms: to hold up a mirror, but at a slant, so that the angle of reflection would capture not just the newly visible self but the surrounding world as well.” Lamenting that gay-themed fiction went from “volatile to humdrum” in a decade -- with Michael Cunningham the only writer of promise in that early period who went on to great crossover success -- he proposes that gay writers recommit to risk-taking and “telling the largest story possible.”
It’s clear that Soehnlein has taken his own advice. His first novel, “The World of Normal Boys,” was a classic coming-out story, set against the larger background of a family tragedy. “You Can Say You Knew Me When” is longer and more ambitious -- a father-and-son story, a portrait of two subcultures and an astute novel of manners.
“For all of Ian’s adamant individuality,” Jamie reflects on a friend, “his lust was often triggered by the blandest signifiers: baseball caps, hiking shoes, neutral-toned cotton clothing.” A wealth of diverting incidents, details, characters and escapades does some damage to Soehnlein’s plot line but also makes for a dense, enjoyable read, like one of those famed Beat road trips: pedal to the metal until the next inspired digression.
Regina Marler is the editor of “Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex.”