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If texts can be said to have a surface, Jimmy Neurosis is superficially a punk-cultural, coming-of-age memoir. Its author, noted food writer and Top Chef judge James Oseland, recounts an adolescence spent in the San Francisco punk scene of the late 1970s. As a queer coming-of-age memoir, in particular, Jimmy Neurosis hits some predictable notes: stories of peeking before coming out of the closet, of an inspirational teacher who encourages the depressive youngster to read Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, of self-discovery via a long sojourn in New York City. But Jimmy Neurosis proves as excellent a queer memoir as it is predictable. With novelistic attention to plot and dialogue, Oseland writes with a liveliness born of both his empathy with and distance from his younger self. When, halfway through the memoir, Oseland’s mother asks how her high-school–dropout of a son will make his way in the world, he sneers, “What do you really know of the world, beyond being a secretary and a mother?” Only in hindsight can Oseland give his mother the last word: “You’re a brat.”
At its bratty core, Jimmy Neurosis engages “deeper” questions about the relationship between queerness and sociality, gayness and futurity, that also emanate from early punk subculture. (Oseland distinguishes between the punk scene of the late 1970s and that of the early 1980s; if a general misfit ethos governs the former, the latter finds itself infused with bigots.) I have in mind the question famously posed by queer theorist Lee Edelman in his 2004 book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive: is queerness not the force that opposes collective hope in “the future”? Oseland and Edelman (see also Jack Halberstam’s work in A Queer Time and Place) take their cue from the same source, the iconic lyrics to The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” While making OJ from frozen concentrate (the future chef’s quiet act of rebellion against his deadbeat father who “always preferred to squeeze oranges by hand”), fourteen-year-old Oseland hears Rotten scream: “No future! No future! No future for you! No future for me!” The lyrics come to trope Oseland’s adolescence, much as they do the burgeoning punk scene. Young Jimmy owns his temporal dysfunction, styling himself “Jimmy Neurosis” as a nod to his obsessive-compulsive counting rituals. (The best punk name nonetheless belongs to Oseland’s friend Blackie O.) He lets his grades slip, then begins, at age fifteen, a relationship with a thirty-seven-year-old man. Over these acts of teenage “rebellion” hovers the voice of Oseland’s mother: “I’m not going to stand by and watch you throw your future away!”
For both Edelman and Oseland, the punk is a permanent adolescent, an eternal teen of an eternal present, with no lifeline moored to something better yet to come. Oseland’s memoir sketches the cultural, musical landscape for Edelman’s influential articulation of queerness as temporally stuck, if not retrograde. The fact that Oseland finds his way into a future may alienate him from the punk scene. “I always thought I had no future,” he writes on his application to the San Francisco Art Institute. “But I get it now: you can consume, sure, but you can also create. It’s time for my anger to be turned.” Finding his way back to earlier musical loves like Joni Mitchell, Oseland ends his memoir as a student filmmaker, even enlisting his mother in the creation of his art.
He is no less queer, of course, for re-orienting himself toward this future. Oseland’s memoir insists that queers have always had a future and a community of their own making: queer people create when they conceive of themselves as artists; or when, as the cliché would have it, they set out to make something of themselves. (Even the punk scene brims with queer creativity and, sometimes despite itself, community.) Jimmy Neurosis summarily serves as a valuable archive of the expressions of anti-social queerness that developed in the latter half of the twentieth century. But it is equally remarkable as a story of queer resilience – of finding that something better on the horizon and making your way toward it.
By James Oseland
Paperback, 978-0062267368, 293 pp.