(Painting by Killer Luka)
JT Leroy Is A Great Literary Hoax, But A Mediocre Rock N’ Roll Swindle
I have a distant cousin who once punked his parents into believing he’d been going to college, when in fact he had been pocketing the tuition dough and playing video games at the mall — for four years! That his parents were divorced and lived states away from each other and the college helped facilitate the deception. He tearfully confessed on the eve of his supposed graduation. There was a big party planned: catering tent, live band, folks flying in from all over the country. What a mess. When I told a friend, he said: “It’s like he deserves some kind of medal…or prison sentence.”
I had a similar reaction when it was revealed recently that the person who wrote Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is not a teenaged-rentboy-turned-celebrated-belletrist after all. Turns out JT Leroy is the nom de plume of Laura Albert, a middle-aged mom with rock star dreams. Because LeRoy’s work always skirted the fringes of memoir, it was his lurid backstory that authenticated the power of the prose: a tender-aged white trash West Virginian, forced to dress like a girl and sold into prostitution by his beloved lot lizard mom, winds up a HIV-positive self-lacerating basket case in San Francisco, faxing off early drafts of his private hell to his literary mentors from public restrooms in between turning tricks. His abuse so profound, his connection to reality now so tenuous and hallucinatory, LeRoy emerges this street-urchin seer, a gutter poet looking up at the stars. Cue deafening applause on the left and right coasts.
To further burnish this mythology, Albert invested enormous amounts of time and energy courting celebrities and media gate-keepers that could further le cause LeRoy, plying their sympathies with exotic gifts, marathon late-night calls and endless emails. The A-list of the dearly deceived is fairly glittering: Dave Eggers, Bono, Zadie Smith, Madonna, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Carrie Fisher, Yoko Ono, Vanity Fair, Bloomsbury Press, Da Capo books, the New York Times (which ultimately unmasked him/her after first glowingly profiling him, then hiring him, then firing him after he refused to prove he was who he said he was). Weep not for them, dear reader, they knew the risks. Barring the questionable morality of masquerading as HIV-positive, Albert was well within her rights as an artist. Art uses tiny lies to tell larger truths — it is short for artifice, after all. In time, the less-than-flattering truths revealed about those who flocked moth-like to JT LeRoy’s flame and basked in the backlight of his reflected glory may transcend the bleak revelations of the books themselves.
Albert was able to spin the critic’s buzz and celebrity connections into a best-selling JT Leroy brand, inking two movie deals, securing high-profile writing and editing gigs, and promoting a line of merchandise. Recently LeRoy rolled out his latest franchise: a mediocre rock band called Thistle LLC. LeRoy writes the lyrics, Albert handles vocals and her husband plays guitar. Thistle specializes in the kind of spiky, chick-fronted riff-rock that Amy Rigby already nailed to perfection on “Dancing With Joey Ramone.” To put it in local terms, minus the JT LeRoy imprimatur, Thistle would at best rate an anonymous Tuesday night support slot at the Khyber. Maybe a Wednesday, but definitely not a Thursday.
As for the, quality of the Albert’s prose I will say this: she writes lyrically of barbarous sodomy. But I suspect there will be some critical evaluation, and the halo will dim, or perhaps go out altogether. Surely some if not all that high-handed praise was a leg-up to a deeply-troubled and dying 16-year-old boy writing his way out of darkness, not a thirtysomething woman writing her way into the limelight.