In You Can Say You Knew Me When, thirty-something San Francisco radio journalist Jamie Garner reluctantly returns to his childhood home of Greenlawn, New Jersey, and discovers secrets from his father's perplexing past. Over the years, Jamie's relationship with Teddy, his dad, has been fraught with difficulty. His son's sexual orientation
is an unbreakable 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 is now dead, and Jamie has long since made peace with their estrangement: "I stopped making myself crazy because my father disapproved of me, and this stopping had unburdened me." However, Teddy's presence remains strong, and memories of their life together eventually flood back to Jamie.
Sorting through his father's possessions, Jamie 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 provide a window into his father's erotic life, a place of Beatniks where
Teddy worked odd jobs and had encounters with the legendary Jack Kerouac. One photo in particular, hints at an illicit affair: his father, pale,
slim 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, with Teddy gradually becoming a kind of character for him
- not a middle-aged father, but someone straight out of a Kerouac book. Did Teddy really have an affair with a man? One thing is for sure: he was never known to have close relationships with other men, and he undoubtedly failed to find any real connection with his only son.
Jamie has his own demons to contend with. 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
as a hurried sexual encounter with a man in the rest room of Newark airport, " a random collision that should mean nothing but alters everything." Overwhelmed by furtive desire, Jamie is progressively set adrift, caught up in a sexualized chain of men who share his desire. Jamie admits that he
has been living on the edge; and that he needs to get a grip on his finances - which means smoking less pot and
reining in his erratic behavior.
His friends are gradually shifting their loyalties and drawing away from him, and Woody suddenly enforces a "time-out" from the relationship. Jamie finds himself alone, steadily descending into sex clubs and 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."
You Can Say You Knew Men When is complex urban tale, a staggering 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.
Author K.M. Soehnlein transports 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 frustrating character as he navigates the perfidious territory of his father's past. The only way this young man can live a better, more fulfilling, and perhaps more honest existence is to make peace with his father's deep-seated prejudices toward his sexuality and come to terms with his father's
mysterious long-ago alternative life.