Imagine, if you will, that tomorrow, an intrepid reporter for, say, the New York Times discovered that Roberto Bolano was not really a Chilean novelist and short story writer who died of liver failure having written a number of books; let’s say he was an older, still living writer instead who had forged the identity of Bolano, had created a Kerouac figure with a peripatetic lifestyle and encouraged this idea of an outsider figure, perpetually hovering on the fringes of the literary world, indisputably “the real deal”. There would be outrage. People would feel as if they had been tricked. The books – works of fiction, remember – would be discredited. We were wrong, the gatekeepers of acceptable culture would say. We were wrong but part of us knew it the whole time.
This is the JT LeRoy story in miniature. Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary (you may have seen Feuerzeig’s earlier, equally excellent film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston – if you haven’t it’s well worth a shufty) starts at the start: a young woman called Laura Albert, given to dialling people up on the phone and pretending to be other people. No harm, no foul. She creates the persona of a young man who she calls Terminator. Terminator has had a rough life: prostitute mother, turning tricks from a young age, victim of abuse, living with AIDs. “He” writes a short story that is anthologised. The story earns Terminator a book deal to write a memoir; Albert walks away from the deal. Later, Terminator returns and Albert channels him into what she eventually comes to learn is a novel. Sarah. She writes it without knowing where it’s going. It is a success. Another book follows: The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Are the books good? I read them at the time and I liked them. I liked them, irrespective of anything I knew about the author. The author didn’t matter. Or at least the author didn’t matter to me; but the author did matter to the people who chatter about such things.
JT LeRoy was mysterious. He didn’t give interviews. He didn’t appear in public. He was a Pynchon. But he was also authentic, man. The phoneys flocked. Eventually JT LeRoy had to exist and so Albert drafted in her sister in law to “play” him. Albert posed as his best mate, an English girl known as Speedie. Gus Van Sant started to explore the possibility of a film of Sarah. Asia Argento picked up the reins on a film of The Heart is Deceitful. Asia and “JT” (as played by Savannah, remember) had something of a fling. Sometimes Speedie isn’t welcome in JT’s celebrity world (JT gets the Bono chat; Speedie is relegated to talking business with U2’s manager Paul McGuinness). Albert and her fella form a band called Thistle and “JT” writes the lyrics. Albert seems to have a fling with Billy Corgan. There is a third book. And then the wheels come off.
Relatively early on in Author, a publishing high-up admits that one of the reasons JT was so quickly taken to the collective cultural busom was because it was the kind of story that didn’t happen so much anymore. Damn straight, you think. Culture is a closely guarded citadel. Periodically, the doors are opened a splinter to allow a stranger in. Many a Jude is left to bang upon the gates. Those admitted have to bear unusual pedigrees. They have to be special. Authentic. A raw voice. They have to mean it, man. “JT LeRoy” was that authentic voice. When it became clear that “JT LeRoy” was a pen-name, the howls of outrage are loud (and much is made of the early AIDs claim, despite the fact that it hadn’t come up in an interview for over a decade at that point). Similarly, JT’s gender fluidity (he’s a boy who sometimes liked to be a girl, there were interviews where he talked about having the operation) was a stick with which to beat Albert. She was sued by a film company for fraud. Eventually there was a measure of exoneration but JT was dead and gone.
And yet the books remain, like guests at a party long after the party has finished. Are the books any good? Were the books any good? I still think so. Author doesn’t attempt to expose the hypocrites (and it really should, it would have been good to know what those people who howled really felt so indignant about), and it feels like a shame that we only hear from Savannah once, towards the end – but it’s a solid documentary and a great story. In point of fact, it feels like a story that is still being told. What would we like, the people who read JT LeRoy’s books and enjoyed them, as books, artefacts in their own right? Why, we’d like more. We don’t care if it is a pen name. We only care about the voice. And we who care about the voice would be interested in hearing more. It just depends whether the collective Judes who loiter outside the gates are heard.
Any Cop?: We don’t normally review and recommend movies on Bookmunch but we think this would be of real interest to our readers and we reckon you should check it out.