- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2011

Ben Dolnick
Vintage, $14.95, 288 pages

Many young novelists turn their hands to the coming-of-age novel about childhood and the growth to maturity - the bildungsroman - because they have only just passed through this stage of life so they know whereof they write. Moreover, they may need to get rid of the sheer volume of mental and emotional stuff that youth generates. As J.D. Salinger said of his “The Catcher in the Rye,” “My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book… [I]t was a great relief telling people about it.”

Sixty years after its publication, “The Catcher in the Rye” still sells around 250,000 copies a year - a testament to enduring appeal of bildungsroman. The engine of its success is the voice of a hip teen talking in taut sentences. Indeed, a bildungsroman needs a strong voice. In one of the earliest English examples of the genre, Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” (1847), Jane’s sense of injustice flames forth on Page One and doesn’t die down until she finally confesses, “Reader I married him.” Charles Dickens added pathos to outrage at wrongful treatment in his “David Copperfield” (1849). Both “Jane Eyre” and “David Copperfield” keep readers reading with plots knotted with secrets, mysteries and coincidences.

Ben Dolnick’s bildungsroman “You Know Who You Are” has neither the plot with the twists of an Aran sweater nor a unique voice that commands reader’s attention. Its central character, Jacob Vine, is a nice kid who sounds like every other nice kid, and his life largely follows the middle-class path from comfortable home in the outskirts of Washington, through school and college, where he is entranced by science and girls, and finally to the beginning of adulthood in New York.

Jacob’s life is not entirely uneventful, however. His mother dies painfully of cancer, and his high-school girl-friend, Emily, gets pregnant as a result of a ripped condom. They are both 15, and Emily’s mother whisks her off to an abortion clinic as soon as she realizes what has happened. The shock of the event and its after-effects puts a definite crimp on Jacob’s high-school love life. But the pregnancy doesn’t mean that Emily and Jacob have to tread a rockier path - as it would have done in novels of the 1960s and ‘70s. Their situation is trouble rather than disaster. Nonetheless, the passages in which the author traces Jacob’s anxieties as he goes through this crisis are affecting because they pinpoint exactly the kinds of real and fanciful anxieties that teenagers feel.

Indeed, Mr. Dolnick is extraordinarily precise when writing about feelings and perceptions, often exposing something we sort of know but don’t entirely acknowledge. For example, describing Emily’s interest in sex, he writes: “Like the occasional cigarettes she smoked … there was something in her desire for sex that seemed to Jacob the product of fashion.”

Later, when college-age Jacob catches a glimpse of a later girlfriend, he notes “There’s a thing that happens sometimes when you’ve been to a dinner party or some other cheery social event with someone, and then afterward … you happen to see her again, sitting in traffic or boarding the subway or just walking down the street. Her face looks so different from how it looked at the party, you suddenly see her anxiety, her inwardness, her unfriendliness. You realize that the self she gave you and everyone else at the party was a kind of performance, a gift, and for the world at large the gift is not available.”

Such sharply focused description is deployed heart-wrenchingly in the episodes where Jacob faces his mother’s illness and death. From watching her making “her way creakily to bed” while she’s suffering from chemo to listening to her “wheeze and whisper and occasionally groan” as she’s dying “with a thick-ridged plastic tube poked out of her mouth like a cigar.” As a 12-year-old, Jacob has no resources to help him cope with her fading and suffering. Without belaboring this point or sentimentalizing the child, Mr. Dolnick captures the sheer oddity of Jacob’s situation, and his consequent inability to figure out how, really, to act or what to say or even, at times, what to feel.

Such virtuosity in tracing feelings is the great strength of “You Know Who You Are,” and it is what goes some way toward solving the problem inherent in the bildungsroman: how to make youthful minutiae interesting enough - different enough -to capture the hearts and minds of readers over about 27 or 28.

“You Know Who You Are” might have been even more successful had its author been more vigilant in tracing the effects of his mother’s death on Jacob. After the first year or two of her demise we hear little more about his feelings about her except when he reveals to new friends that he’s motherless or has to think about his father’s new relationship. The vagueness here is problematic. It’s unlikely, then, that Jacob Vine will join the ranks of those unforgettable characters Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and Holden Caulfield. But Mr. Dolnick’s talents certainly suggest that sooner or later he will write a truly compelling novel. Still in his late 20s, he is a newcomer to watch.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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