Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir
“Jonathan Alexander’s emphasis on what he envisions to be a unique narrative form detracts from what the book actually is—which is well worth a read.”
Jonathan Alexander, a “1970s nervous boy in the deep South,” vows to “not be the faggot that I seem destined to be.” His is not a conventional coming of age story, and although he labels his memoir an “experiment,” it most certainly is not.
Every memoir involves the self now interrogating a younger self then. Faced with this conventional structure, how does Alexander fare? He does address wry missives to his conflicted younger self. But what of them, and what is their meaning?
His uncommon but not unheard–of approach is to directly address his younger self as “you.” He similarly directs himself to the reader in asides (“People could smoke in bars back then,” or “Neiman’s, you remember, was its name”). But neither gambit is original despite Alexander’s pose.
This may seem a quibble, but the author’s emphasis on what he envisions to be a unique form of narrative detracts from what the book actually is—which is engaging and well worth a read. He explores deeply 1989, 1993, and 1996—three peak years involving AIDS, Reagan, and Clinton during a rich flux in American life. Along the way we encounter deeply uncomfortable ways in which the author implicates himself in his own story.
Descriptions of his New Orleans hometown are rich and evocative, such as his adult self looking back nostalgically on “what a time we had,” raucous years during which he escaped homophobic bullies, the Catholic Church, and similar authorities determined to torment him to finally reach a position in which he at last felt free of them.
Although he has close friends, especially women whose points of view are entirely sympathetic, it doesn’t’ stop him from crossing boundaries. Over time his fumbling attempts to be heterosexual—making out with a lesbian friend—prove unsatisfactory.
If there is a blot on the book it would be the author’s impulse to be clever. His story’s politicization is unfortunate given its otherwise strong moral aspect. His polemics disparage half his readership (“Tear down this wall, Mr. Reagan!”). Elsewhere, his writer’s imagination fills gaps with illusory facts, a practice that strains the creative nonfiction genre.
Scenes of being drunk, overly drunk, and drunk out of control become tiresome. Particularly so when equal weight is given each session, making none of them stand out as more important from the others. The same goes for his unforgiving details of delayed gratification, such as having his crushes on straight boys in which he feels he can do nothing.
The pacing flags midway through the book when equal weight is given to each of its incidents. This is a rookie mistake. In merely chronicling events (and then, and then, and then . . . ) in which the author signals his reluctance to get on with the plot and finish the throughline he has so admirably maintained earlier.
A saving grace are some hilarious faux pas: When, at the age of 20, he finally kisses a man, “a kiss full on the lips,” his first and only thought is that “he has stubble.”