In "You Can Say You Knew Me When," K.M. Soehnlein's engaging new novel, Jamie Garner returns from his father's funeral to his childhood home in Greenlawn (the same New Jersey suburb where Soehnlein's Lambda Award-winning first novel, "The World of Normal Boys," is set). Coming to the house opens a lot of painful memories for Jamie, as his sexuality had always been an issue of contention between him and his now late father. As Jamie remarks, "I'd been 'coming out' to him for most of my adult life." Given that his father practically disowned him, and seeing that the two didn't speak for five years, death makes the father's unwillingness to accept his son seemingly permanent.
But Jamie comes across a taped-up shoe box marked "San Francisco" containing his father's old postcards and letters. Jamie, who has made a home for himself in San Francisco, becomes intrigued by the year his dad spent there in the early 1960s. ("A lousy place to make a life," Jamie remembers his father once saying, "writing off his entire SF experience.") Jamie embarks on a journey of discovery, taking on this personal private investigation -- the almost obsessive quest for his father's past -- and leading the reader on a drug-fueled ride.
The flow and intensity of the writing make it difficult to put Soehnlein's book down, as Jamie plunges into the 1960s of his dad, indulging in Kerouac-like fantasies (the reading of "On the Road" plays out through the story) in '90s San Francisco. He finds it hard, however, to live up to the ideals of his father's era, struggling "in the shadows of the city's mythic decades." Jamie, who wants to not just unearth the past but also relive it to a certain extent, sums up the dilemma this way: "How are we supposed to revive bohemia when we're living in the most expensive place in the country?"