Late in his memoir “Jimmy Neurosis,” former Saveur Editor in Chief James Oseland recalls a moment when the world appears to open up. It’s 1979, in San Francisco, and Oseland is 16 years old. For two years, he’s been absorbed in self-destructive frenzy: drugs, anonymous sex, self-loathing — all of which he has resolutely sought to frame as possibility. That he’s not wrong, exactly, is part of the point of this affecting, if uneven, book; like many of us, Oseland experiences a kind of freedom in rejecting the stultifying pressures of school and family, not to mention the low-end Peninsula suburb where he lives with his mother in a nondescript rental apartment.
It is only when he visits San Francisco Art Institute in North Beach and meets the artists there, however, that Oseland begins to understand. “I had to concede that while maybe they weren’t as authentically miserable as the people I knew who were sunk deep into the punk rock scene,” he writes, “they weren’t necessarily hollow poseurs.” All of a sudden, his attitude — or a substantial piece of it — begins to slip away.
What Oseland is describing is hope, or opportunity, a lens though which he may begin to reimagine himself. He has already discovered that he has an aesthetic: “[T]he work I liked best was stark and conceptual and had an edge to it that challenged the viewers’ preconceptions.” He has already begun to experiment with photography. At the same time, he has grown disillusioned with the Bay Area punk scene, which has devolved.
“Gone,” he remembers of a show at the Mabuhay Gardens nightclub, “were the drag queens and freaks, the Asian-American, black, and Latino kids. The whole bar was populated by what looked like a uniform mob of white guys displaying the plumage of punk rock machismo: shaved heads and bare chests crisscrossed by Union Jack suspenders, clumsy swastikas tattooed onto biceps.” This — the tension between what was and what may be — is the definition of what it means to come of age.
Coming of age sits very much at the center of “Jimmy Neurosis,” which begins when its narrator is 14. Gay, uncertain, socially awkward, he sees himself as something of misfit, even before his father deserts the family. “I drifted into the bathroom to stare into the mirror,” Oseland observes. “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.’”
Punk — in the form of a sensationalized television report about the Sex Pistols — offers the first signifier of something else, another way of being, in which what he considers to be his flaws, his failings, might be reconfigured and embraced. “Repelled and amazed,” he recalls, “I couldn’t look away. The singer was acting exactly like he felt — like I felt — and daring you to hate him for it.” Such a posture solidifies once Oseland, along with his mother and his older sister, end up in Northern California, where he makes friends with a stoner and a female exchange student; the latter takes him to his first punk show.
At the same time, he begins exploring the city’s cruising scene, beginning with a pickup on a commuter train. It is one of the unexpected strengths of the book that this, even more than his engagement with punk culture, is where the narrative comes most fully into life. For Oseland, cruising — for all its dangers and its degradations, the rushed encounters in men’s rooms and transit platforms, or the bushes of Golden Gate Park — is not only risky but liberating, a way to stake out a territory of his own.
Each interlude was a fascinating and excitingly unpredictable adventure
That, the older Oseland recognizes, is an illusion, but he doesn’t impose that knowledge on his younger self. The effect is like a compression of narrative vision, a collapsing of the distance between then and now. “Each interlude was a fascinating and excitingly unpredictable adventure,” he tells us, describing an interlude spent living in New York. “And the only way to taste it all again was it have sex with the hot, balding Latino guy in the black denim vest who cruised me in the men’s room at the Mudd Club. And then with another stranger. And then another.”
This is resonant because we tend to denigrate these experiences as irresponsible or worse, when often they become a crucible through which one has to travel to break free. For Oseland, both punk and cruising offer such a passage, exposing him not only to the dangers of his behavior but also to his own complexity.
The process is highlighted by his taking the name Jimmy Neurosis — hence, the title of his book — before he sheds it at the memoir’s end. Is that a poseur move? Of course it is. But it also tells us something fundamental about his desire for exposure, his ongoing exploration of himself.
It’s impossible to read about these moments without recalling that they all took place, largely, in the pre-AIDS era; were he younger, Oseland might not have survived to write this book. Indeed, much of the narrative is marked by a sense of the near-miss, both in regard to promiscuity and drugs.
“We gotta go,” he slurs to his friends at a party after a fellow scenester overdoses and dies. “Please. Guys. This isn’t a good place.” In this scene, derangement becomes a sort of clarifying influence — the first crack in the facade that opens wider once he discovers, and decides to attend, the Art Institute.
The issue is that, for all the value of proximity, “Jimmy Neurosis” lacks a certain contemplative voice — the sense of reflection on which a memoir relies. It’s not a deal-breaker because much of what Oseland reveals is moving, but the book could have benefited from a little more.
What makes such a story important, after all, is not only that it happened to Oseland but also that, in the telling, it begins to echo the similar passages we all share. This is the universality of the particular, the way the writer’s experiences connect to, or enlarge, the experiences of the reader, until we are bound together in our common humanity.
Here we see the power of the punk scene before it grows corrupted, and even of those brief flashes of intimacy, physical or otherwise, which Oseland shares with his anonymous partners, a strategy to expose and, in some way, to mitigate his vulnerability and loneliness.
The truth is we all feel desperate for connection, like that awkward kid baring his teeth and commenting on his looks. That there is no solution to this problem, no validation to impose upon ourselves, is the point at which we intersect. All we have is memory and the hope that we will find more than despair.
Or as Oseland discovers: “[T]he sense of mental stimulation in this environment was like a jolt of caffeine, and something in me moved forward to meet it. … This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
Ecco: 320 pp., $27.99
Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms With Los Angeles.” A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is a former book editor and book critic of The Times.