If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter
Review by Jacob Newberry
The fourteen chronologically (and thematically) linked essays in Ryan Van Meter’s debut collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Sarabande, 2011) employ a variety of narrative techniques, a feature that reminds the reader that almost all of these essays were previously published in some form (including one in The Southeast Review). These publications include some of the best journals in the country (The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, The Colorado Review). The quality level, then, is already certain to be high. But one of the main concerns with cobbling together a book from previously published material, at least from a reader’s standpoint, is the concern that the ensuing book will lack focus, or—at the very least—a cohesive sense of architecture. Gratefully, Van Meter’s book avoids this fate.
The theme of the book is clear: a young narrator’s coming to terms with his own difference—physically, emotionally, and, finally, with respect to his sexuality. The first essay begins early in his life and is, appropriately, titled “First.” This essay was reprinted in Best American Essays 2009, and reading it again reminded me why. We are served a quiet, intimate portrait of a five-year-old’s burgeoning first crush, as well as his family’s attempt to quiet this new development. As we discover in the following essays, however, this won’t be the last time.
The book moves purposefully through Van Meter’s early life, through unhappy baseball practices to even more unsatisfying fishing trips. All the while, the narrator treats his own situation—as well as that of his parents—with both humor and candor. There are flashes of frustration and anger, but the narration largely hinges on his successful ability to speak with compassion about a difficult and complicated situation, one that no one asked for and which no one really knows how to handle. Being gay in a small town is often difficult, but it’s not often brought to life so vividly.
Perhaps the most successful essay in the book is “The Goldfish History,” which adeptly interweaves three narratives, each one commenting on the other in a surprising and meaningful way. There is the first narrative —that of a close friendship, post-college—along with the primary competing narrative, that of the narrator’s first serious relationship. These two human relationships center around the narrator, and the inevitable conflict that Van Meter relates would be nothing more than a simple retelling were it not for the careful inclusion of the third story, that of the pet goldfish (named Rufus, after the singer Rufus Wainwright). The story of the goldfish’s unusually long life acts as a touchstone to the relationship with the boyfriend, to the failed friendship, and, globally, to the narrator’s development as a person.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now is largely the story of this narrator’s coming-of-age in a world where such a journey isn’t always welcome. But it also centers on the importance of love, in all its manifold representations. To a question about the nature of this virtue posed by the narrator in the final essay, his friend replies simply: “I think we reinvent love every time.” At least some of those reinventions, to our great benefit, can be found in this beautiful book.
Ryan Van Meter is the author of If You Knew Then What I Know Now available from Sarabande Books. His essays have been published in The Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, and Fourth Genre, among others, and selected for anthologies including Best American Essays 2009 and Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. He currently teaches at the University of San Francisco.
Jacob Newberry is pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Florida State University, where he is the recipient of the University Fellowship. He was recently awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in Creative Writing and is spending the year in Jerusalem as a result. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Granta, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, The Normal School, and Best New Poets 2011, among others. He is the former Poetry Editor of The Southeast Review.