Ben Dolnick takes on a lot of themes in his second novel, You Know Who You Are, from the effects of losing a matriarch on a family to the ambivalent bond between brothers. But while he succeeds at some level with all of them, the greatest accomplishment of this book is Dolnick’s skillful recreation of guilty thrill of newly discovered sex.Dolnick’s hero, Jacob, and his best friend Owen spend hours after school every day writing dirty stories, filled with every obscenity and position they can think of. Their opus, “Orgasms in the Mist,” exerts both a powerful attraction for Jacob and Owen, and an equally powerful repulsion. Jacob feels disgusted with himself until his hormones flare, and all he can think about is returning to Owen’s room to add another section and reread their previous work.
Eventually, Jacob outgrows just writing about sex, and You Know Who You Are threatens to dissolve in a flurry of after-school-special melodrama. Granted the distracted parenting that comes with losing one’s mother, Jacob’s girlfriend Emily ends up pregnant after a condom breaks. But Dolnick has too much to say about becoming an adult to allow Jacob to become a martyr to parenthood, so Emily does what thousands of teenage girls do every week and has an abortion.
That episode somewhat mars what is otherwise a funny-sad look at growing up, something that doesn’t end with college for Jacob. Spun out into his own orbit by the death of his mother, it isn’t until a college girlfriend presses him that he reaches out to the rest of his family, all of whom coped with the loss of their mother in their own ways. The college sections, filled with awkward encounters and desperate attempts at forcing love, are the best-written of the novel, nailing the self-conscious reinventions that everyone dabbles with away from the watchful eyes of people who know our pasts. For Jacob, becoming an adult is more than dealing with unwanted pregnancies or dealing with the death of a parent. It’s about being big enough to forgive sins both big and small, and understanding the importance of family. The gentle irony of the title (Jacob is never entirely sure of who he is, even when he’s acting the most self-assured) and Jacob’s slow and painful emotional growth makes a claim for Dolnick as a writer to watch.
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