A memoir can be many things: A deeply reflective reckoning with the past; the tearing off a veil between two types of existence; a tale of derring-do. Or, in the case of “Jimmy Neurosis,” the portrait of the author as a young punk.
Former Saveur editor in chief James Oseland revisits his teen years in late-1970s San Francisco, where he explores his dual identity as a gay man and an edgy artist. Neither of these identities would please his rigid single mother, who is equally terrified of penury and social shame. Young James christens himself “Jimmy Neurosis” and starts sporting unusual thrift-store finds (women’s capri pants, shrunken sweaters, ripped T-shirts). He takes up with other club kids and has one-night stands with older men.
But he still goes on outings with his mother for their favorite indulgences such as McDonald’s meals and bags of See’s Candies. Movingly, despite their differences, they both exist on the margins — due to his sexual orientation and cultural longings and her bad divorce and pink-collar ghettoization. While Jimmy spends as many nights away from home as he can possibly wrangle, he still depends on his mom for rides and meals at first (even when they’re just TV dinners) — and the sense of a family.
It isn’t until he drops out of high school, sailing through the GED as if it were a kindergarten exam, and meets a man who introduces him to New York City, that he begins to understand that he can make his own family. He can create a family from the friends who surround him, even the people he sees in the morning on his way to the subway.
That’s not the end of Jimmy’s story; he returns to California and finds another path, one that will no doubt be chronicled in Oseland’s next volume. You might think, from the summary, that “Jimmy Neurosis” is just another coming-of-age story, one among scores. But Oseland writes with the kind of immersive attention to detail that makes his younger self come alive. “I drifted into the bathroom to stare into the mirror,” he writes. “I looked even skinnier than usual, and there were dark circles under my eyes. My dirty-blond hair was in need of a trim. I bared my prominent front teeth, exaggerating them into rabbit protrusions. ‘You’re so ugly,’ I told my reflection. The bowl of rosebud-shaped miniature soaps seemed to regard me with reproach.”
It’s a vivid tale, though not always an easy one. Oseland is just old enough to have felt the sexual unshackling that presaged the AIDS decades, and has lived to tell us his truth, which is anything but neurotic.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By James Oseland
Ecco. 293 pp. $27.99.