“So how do we learn to be in love?” asks Ryan Van Meter in his essay “You Can’t Turn Off the Snake Light.” He asks his friends, and finds no consensus. One says we learn from old movies; another says he learned by watching his parents. Another friend admits he “doesn’t think he ever learned how,” and a few others have no answer at all.
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Perhaps Van Meter doesn’t himself know the answer to the question. Or perhaps his answer is his new book, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, an essay collection that could almost double as a memoir. It’s also as compelling as a great novel, and as ethereally beautiful as a poem that you read and still remember years later. Which is all to say that I haven’t read many books like it—not just because, as the sum of its parts, it’s difficult to pigeonhole into one genre, but because it’s flawless. Van Meter is a young writer, and this is his first book, but he’s already mastered a literary form that takes most other writers decades and decades to get right.
The essays in Van Meter’s collection cover various times in his life, from his childhood in the 1980s in Missouri, to his post-college life in Chicago. (He now lives in San Francisco.) His upbringing sounds familiar to those of us who also grew up in the Reagan-era suburbs of middle America, but his stories are unique—a series of disappointments and triumphs, strained relationships with friends, family and lovers. Maybe we’ve all gone through things like that, but while it’s entirely possible to share the same joy, your heartbreaks are always your own.
Van Meter writes with a compassion and emotional maturity that is absolutely breathtaking. In “Lake Effect” and “Practice,” he considers his relationship with his father, who never quite saw eye-to-eye with his oldest son. He never shared the love of fishing and baseball that his father, and later, his younger brother, had. He began to sense he was different as a child, developing crushes on boys he knew, but he wasn’t sure why. In the title essay, he recounts his first encounters with homophobic name-calling and bullying, as a shy, sweet grade schooler. (It’s an experience that informs him for the rest of his life, and he revisits the hate word hurled his way in his essay “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot.’ ”)
Eventually, he comes out of the closet, first to his best friend in the restroom of a gay bar. (She’s shocked by the news.) And later he finds love, although it doesn’t work out the way he hopes, because, at least when you’re young, it never really does.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now is at times almost unbearably sad and at other times unbelievably funny. It feels a lot like reading a long letter from your best friend, if your best friend happened to be one of the best young writers in America. Van Meter’s generosity of spirit is an inspiration, and his talent is actually beyond criticism. He’s only in his mid-30s, but he’s already a master.
So how do we learn to be in love? If only there were one answer; if only there were any answer. I don’t know, of course, but I know that reading these essays feels like being in love, feels like a night spent with a good friend, feels like a hand on your shoulder telling you that it’s all going to be OK, even when it’s not. And as usual, he’s right. Van Meter isn’t the only essayist in America, of course, but absolutely nobody else writes like him.
Michael Schaub is the managing editor of Bookslut and a frequent contributor to NPR.org. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. A native of Texas, he now lives in Portland, Ore.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now
Ryan Van Meter
Paperback, 176 Pages, $15.95
Released April 5, 2011