The Cult of J.T. LeRoy

How a Teenage Hustler-Turned-Novelist Built a Celebrity Support Group

Everyone loves a hustler, but nobody entirely trusts one. Elusive yet vulnerable, the artist-hustler slouches around the edges of pop culture. Think of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who craftily positioned his graffiti outside restaurants visited by the art elite; or Courtney Love, who played indie rock until she had enough cultural and hard currency to schmooze her way into Hollywood glamdom. The artist-hustler has a longer tradition than you might think: A recent biography reveals Hans Christian Andersen as a tireless networker, cozying up to the brothers Grimm, and Walt Whitman once appropriated a personal note from Emerson for a blurb on the back of his book. After all, what use is genius without salesmanship, persistence, and gall?

Twenty-one-year-old J.T. LeRoy—whose first novel generated a cult following last year and whose second book comes out this week—is the perfect combination of gifted autodidact and compulsive self-promoter. After a childhood riddled with abuse and instability, LeRoy spent part of his teens on the streets as a real hustler—until Dr. Terrence Owens, his therapist at a San Francisco hospital, suggested J.T. write about his life for the social workers and therapists Owens was teaching. His first taste of positive feedback was addictive: "It was like feeling a switch go on inside me; it had nothing to do with sex or how I looked, it was this pure thing."

As he became more interested in the literary world, a neighbor put him in touch with poet Sharon Olds, and later a librarian showed him a reference book with numbers for publishing companies and agents. Soon enough, LeRoy had built himself a support supergroup of celebs (Dennis Cooper, Mary Gaitskill, Suzanne Vega, and Dorothy Allison among them) whom he could call at all hours of the day or night, who encouraged him to write and counseled him on the wily ways of the literati. Says Gaitskill, "One of the first things he ever said to me was, 'I feel like this is just another hustle, like maybe I'm hustling the literary world.' I said, 'If your writing is good, it doesn't matter.' "

LeRoy: Self-promotion meets a longing for invisibility.
photo: Roe Etheridge/Index Magazine
LeRoy: Self-promotion meets a longing for invisibility.

LeRoy is a one-man literary striptease, exposing the gory details of his past in his writing, but drawing a veil over himself in real life. He rarely appears in public (few of his writer friends have ever met him), instead convincing pals to do readings on his behalf (an event this week in Brooklyn features Gaitskill, Shirley Manson of Garbage, and Joel Rose). He'll submit to interviews, but mainly over the phone; in photographs, he dons disguises such as the wig, mask, and tutu in Mary Ellen Mark's recent Vanity Fair portrait. For a while LeRoy wrote for New York Press and other publications under his street name, Terminator. He finally shed the pseudonym when he published his debut novel, Sarah, and is now working on the screenplay for the film, which Gus Van Sant plans to direct.

Sarah is a novel about a young boy who aims to emulate his mother, a "lot lizard" (truck-stop whore). LeRoy's newly published follow-up, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (Bloomsbury, $23.95), actually predates Sarah by several years; it's a collection of autobiographical stories that tell much the same tale, without the fantastical interludes and light touch that characterized the novel. One thing both books share is the name Sarah—apparently J.T.'s real mother's name—a hint of the eerie way LeRoy exploits the dark material of his short life.

The Heart Is Deceitful's stories are uneven and unrelenting: sometimes raw as nerve brushing bone; other times emotionally manipulative, eliciting almost involuntary twinges of empathy. In the book's opener, "Disappearances," a woman takes little Jeremiah away from his family, bucking and howling. This woman isn't as kind or gentle as his momma; she taunts and terrifies, hits and abandons him repeatedly. Unfortunately, this irresponsible babysitter is Jeremiah's birth mother, who at 18 has returned to retrieve her four-year-old from his loving foster family. A drug-addicted punk-rocker prostitute, Sarah drags her dazed son on her nomadic crawl around the South; she often makes him pretend he's a girl, leaving him vulnerable to her john-boyfriends' sexual advances. He comes to associate pain with comfort.

LeRoy's depiction of his childhood is alternately evocative and detached; he plays intricate descriptions of physical grotesqueries against a desperate longing for invisibility. And though his writing flirts with overripe clichés of transgressive fiction, there's usually something graceful and startling in the language. In "Baby Doll," first published in the anthology Close to the Bone edited by Laurie Stone back in 1998, Jeremiah dresses up like his mother and seduces her boyfriend. Later, he quietly examines the damage done: "I feel something there, between my legs, but I'm not sure what it is. . . . I open my eyes and my flashlight shines on my thing, yellowish pink, Krazy-Glued backward between my legs. And suddenly I feel pressure on my bladder and I need to piss. I move my shaking hand and pull on my thing; it stretches out slightly like gum stuck on a sidewalk but snaps right back."

Next Page »