‘If You Knew Then What I Know Now’ by Ryan Van Meter

I have written a few reviews for LLF over the last couple of years, but I have never said this about any book I’ve reviewed: this is a book I wish I had written. This was not the first time I had read Van Meter’s work, having read his essays in top literary journals such as Fourth Genre as well as Best American Essays 2009. This collection brings fourteen of Van Meter’s essays together, ordering them in a way that creates a sense of cohesion for the entire book while still allowing each essay to stand on its own. And he does this while creating seemingly simple yet lilting sentences that flow together easily. This is a book that many will be able to read for pure pleasure, while others will want to study it closely, asking, “How does he do that?”

Perhaps the most stunning thing about Van Meter’s book is how ordinary it is, at least in terms of its subject. The pains Van Meter writes about are not the kinds of traumas that are often at the center of memoir. They are somewhat mundane, which means they are often relatable. As Van Meter describes how his grandmother would watch him setting the table as he wore a blue dress he had discovered in a closet upstairs, I remember similar situations with my grandmother. As he details how he would sneak looks at his father’s shirtless friend, capturing the exact pattern of the hair on this man’s chest in his mind forever, I remember doing the same with men my father knew. Many readers fortunate enough not to have lived lives defined by trauma and devastation will recognize struggles to blend in with other boys (or girls) or to decide if now is the time to say to someone, “I’m gay,” struggles that our adult selves may be able to look back upon and even smile about but that our younger selves experienced with hardened, stone-cold stomachs and sweats of fear.

But why read something that many of us have lived? Because Van Meter is so damn smart in his recountings and reflections. Many people can write about past experiences with rich, evocative details, but a story evolves once that writer reflects on those experiences and infuses them with depth, providing readers with a frame for interpretation and explaining why, however subtly, we should care. For Van Meter, this often means considering not just what he felt and did at the time but considering what motivated others involved in his memory. Van Meter is always considerate in his assumptions about what motivated others, never absolving those who cause pain but remembering that there is more to them than the menace who appears on the surface.

Such thoughtfulness is clearest in his essay, “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot’,” where Van Meter delves not only into his experiences being called a faggot but the word’s history and how its use has changed over time. As he writes, “words aren’t simply good or evil,” and he ultimately does not use this essay to argue for the word’s continued use or its denigration. He does, however, explore the word and how it is used by raising provocative questions even while he recounts painful experiences with it. That is what I will take away from this book, his careful provocations and beautiful words. As ordinary as this book might seem to be, ordinary is the last thing it is.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now
by Ryan Van Meter
Sarabande Books
Paperback, 9781932511949, 209 pp.
April 2011