“You Know Who You Are,” Washington-area native Ben Dolnick’s secondcoming-of-age novel, is the story of Jacob Vine. We see him first at age 10, searching for his lost cousin and trying to hold on to the love of his more accomplished older brother. By the end, he’s graduated from college and living in a re-negotiated family.
Jacob’s early life in suburban D.C. is the most nuanced and precise section of the story, providing a complex glimpse into the inner life of a young boy about to jump, arms flailing, into young adulthood. The pre-teen Jacob, a middle child, falls “in love” with his male friends, in the company of whom he learns how to masturbate and fantasize. His mother’s illness unstitches the once tightly sewn family, leaving their father, who moved “like a retired athlete in the site of his former glory,” and the Vine siblings as islands in a sea of grief. Jacob’s first girlfriend is wooed by the tragedy unfolding at home. In fact, his mother’s impending death is his “most important asset,” Dolnick writes, “a dark glow behind his silhouette.”Their first stabs at love is fodder not often seen from a teenage boy’s perspective.
But when Jacob leaves home for the fictional Lodwick College — not even his third choice — and develops passions other than of the heart and body, the story loses strength. As the pace speeds up to meet the needs of the novel’s ambitious time span, characters come and go, their outcomes unclear. Jacob’s keen examination of his most vulnerable adolescent feelings dissipates, rendering his college life generic. He’s still in search of the right girl, but the story trades intimacy for catching up with plot when Jacob leaves Lodwick for a predictable post-college life.
Dolnick’s secret power — if only novelists were superheroes! — is his mastery of observation. His descriptions can be both intricate, clear and witty. For his next project, here’s hoping that his deftly drawn characters have the chance to grow up.
Gilmore is the author of the novels “Golden Country” and “Something Red,” recently out in paperback.
YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE
By Ben Dolnick
Vintage. 274 pp. Paperback, $16.95