The Cult of J.T. LeRoy


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 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.”

LeRoy’s books call like sirens to emotional tourists looking to vacation in someone else’s torment. Abuse, gender confusion, abandonment, prostitution, addiction—all the sensationalistic obsessions of our era, wrapped in one neat adolescent package. If hustling taught LeRoy how to sell his physical self for self-preservation, therapy showed him how to mine the ore of his personal life, how to use his realness both as a seduction tactic and as a shield. Says Dennis Cooper, who has known LeRoy since he was 15, “I think he had a really hard time being a prostitute because he’s an enormously shy kid and insecure beyond belief. But I think writing his books, he found something to hustle, and it’s been very good for him. It’s safe.”

One of LeRoy’s literary mentors, Bruce Benderson, wrote a few years ago: “Seldom in my life had I encountered a ‘professional’ with such a knack for creating an instant sense of intimacy.” Even forewarned, I am caught off guard by LeRoy’s charming telephone manner. At first he stutters wildly, his high Southern drawl eventually settling into a sweet, soft-spoken patter that suggests he might call me “ma’am” at any moment. He offers messy personal details bundled in charming metaphors, and almost immediately confesses he has problems with boundaries: “Around the time of that memoir craze, my story came out [in Close to the Bone], and I got a little taste of the press. I didn’t know how to deal with it, and I ended up having sex with one of the people who interviewed me; it was a big fucking mess,” he sighs, sounding like a remorseful teenage girl caught smoking after curfew. “If I feel like someone wants to have sex with me I go into waitress mode: ‘Let me take your order?’ ”

Behind LeRoy’s compulsive openness is a knack for self-mythologizing: For instance, he claims to have started the widespread rumor that Dennis Cooper wrote Sarah. There’s also been some confusion over the photo on the cover of Cooper’s most recent novel, Period (of a gamine, straw-haired boy), which Bloomsbury has also used as LeRoy’s publicity photo. J.T. says, “I wanted to be anonymous, but they really pushed me for pictures. So we spread the idea that it’s not really me, because I wanted a parachute so that if I wanted to jump, I could jump. When I wrote Sarah I was male-identified, and now I’m not. I don’t know what I am. So it’s easier if people decide it’s not me, then I won’t be held down. So many people have claimed me as their own, so I guess the best thing is to confuse them all.”

All of this slipperiness has led some early supporters to wonder if they’ve been played. As Gaitskill put it, “It’s occurred to me that the whole thing with Jeremy [J.T.] is a hoax, but I felt that even if it turned out to be a hoax, it’s a very enjoyable one. And a hoax that exposes things about people, the confusion between love and art and publicity. A hoax that would be delightful and if people are made fools of, it would be OK—in fact, it would be useful.”

Why were so many talented people so drawn to a fucked-up teen with a shady past and a shaky identity in the first place? Cooper explains, “When I first knew him, he was 15 and living on the streets. He carried a fax machine wherever he went, and he would plug it in to weird places and fax me all the time. For years I thought he might die any minute. I was always trying to encourage him to write because I didn’t know what else to do. And I think people like Mary did the same thing.” Gaitskill says she took an interest because “he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever talked to in my life. It’s an uncanny sort of intelligence, like he can read people without meeting them. . . . I sometimes got this image of him as a glistening gossamer net moving in response to sound, thought, feeling, any kind of stimulus imaginable.”

LeRoy was astute in his choice of role models—writers such as Cooper, Gaitskill, and Dorothy Allison whose main turf is the battleground of sexual and emotional mind games, whose characters perpetually map the surfaces of the wounded heart. LeRoy is precisely the sort of damaged character who inhabits their work, and that probably appealed too. Laurie Stone explains that when LeRoy was younger, “It was a strange experience, having to allow for how little and vulnerable and needy this person was, and how richly experienced he was. He really stakes out different people to play different roles for him.”

Gaitskill is one of the few writers LeRoy has materialized for in person, but their meeting was hilariously fleeting. She says she waited for him in a San Francisco diner at the assigned time, “and suddenly he walked in with two other kids and thrust a bag of stuff at me. It turned out to be a Sharon Olds book, a manuscript, a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette, and a bar of chocolate. He said, ‘I’m Terminator,’ and bolted. I probably saw him for a few seconds.” Yet they continued to communicate by phone and e-mail. LeRoy says, “We entered into this relationship she described as erotic, and it was—it was everything. She’s the first woman I’d say I ever fell in love with on all sorts of levels. I wouldn’t say she’s a mom—more like a lover, but a parent for the writing. A lot of people were delicate with me because I was perceived as fragile. . . . And I think I was, actually.” He clears his throat nervously. “But she kind of tore me another asshole. She basically told me everything I was doing wrong in my writing and sent me Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor.”

Gaitskill explains, “He told me he didn’t write for a year because of something I said, and I was horrified. I considered some of the early stuff I saw to be pretty one-dimensional, even though I thought it was the kind of one dimensionality that would definitely push people’s buttons, because it had a hard emotional charge to it. I didn’t see his full level of perception or sophistication in it, and that’s what I told him.”

Threaded through both of LeRoy’s books is a hunger for family, and he says that for obvious reasons it’s his weak spot. “A lot of hustlers had this thing of taking them for their money and then you leave. But I would always hear these stories about the kid who got adopted and lives in a nice house as a family, and that’s always what I hoped. It happened to me a few times, but I had so many emotional problems that once that stuff started leaking out, they’d throw me out.” LeRoy’s mentors are all older and mostly childless, and Gaitskill believes this definitely plays a role in their relationships with LeRoy. “There was a certain point, when I’d known Jeremy for about six months, I remember having an emotional reaction that baffled me. I was thinking, ‘Am I falling in love with a 16-year-old?’ Then I realized it was maternal feelings. I started having fantasies of marrying someone and adopting him, and I told him about a dream I had about him being abused by a terrible john. I burst in and said, ‘Get your hands off!’ . . . I said, ‘I’m his mother’ and shot the guy. That stuff lasted a few months, and then I began to deal with him as if he was my age or I was his age. It was like a game but not a hurtful game.” LeRoy now has an ad hoc family of his own that includes a boyfriend and a baby and so has less need for intense emotional support, and more use for career guidance.

LeRoy’s career is about to go into overdrive. He sounds like the awestruck 21-year-old he is as he lists his high-profile upcoming projects (the Sarah script, an animated musical with people from the hit children’s TV series Blue’s Clues, and a screenplay for an HBO show produced by Diane Keaton) and name-drops famous people who like his work (from “Shirley Manson wrote a song about me for the new Garbage album” to “I got e-mails from Courtney Love”). He’s been enjoying hanging out with Van Sant lately, and one wonders if LeRoy’s focus on fiction will survive all this mass media adulation.

A hint of anxiety creeps into LeRoy’s voice when he contemplates where his writing will go next. The authors he admires all write complex, layered prose, and he’s afraid his work may be stuck in a groove. “How do you will growth?” he asks in a strained tone. “I write from this sick shit that’s in me, stuff I’m still trying to work out.” Cooper says he’s impressed by LeRoy’s most recent writing—”His work becomes structurally more self-aware all the time”—but LeRoy doesn’t always feel he’s in control of his gift. Of Sarah, he says, “I thought it was just going to be a short story, but this pit bull came raging out and grabbed me by the neck and wouldn’t let me go till it was done.” He adds later, “I’ll never be able to write anything like that again, for better or worse. I wasn’t writing for an audience, there was no book deal, I was just writing like a shark swims. Now I have that feeling of being looked at over my shoulder.”

Reading: June 13 at 8:30 p.m., the Brooklyn Brewery, 79 North 11th Street, Williamsburg