Hillbilly Lit

The JT LeRoy literary hoax raises hackles in Appalachia

| Utne Reader January / February 2007

A note fromUtne Reader's Editors: Last year, author 'JT LeRoy' was unmasked as a hoax. Purportedly an HIV-positive former drug addict and male prostitute who had been sexually abused as a child, LeRoy turned out to be a character played by two women. His books had in fact been written by Laura Albert, a 40-year-old San Francisco resident, and he was represented in public by Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Albert's ex-partner. The author of this story is an actress from West Virginia.

I first heard of JT LeRoy through a musician friend organizing a reading of stories from JT's new book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, at a hipster bookstore in Los Angeles in 2001. Since JT rarely traveled and was too pathologically shy to read his own work in public, would I read an excerpt?

I knew very little of LeRoy's work, but the more I heard about the reclusive author the more intrigued I became. Part of the allure was that LeRoy was from my home state of West Virginia. Most of his writing was either about or set in the place where I grew up (and often return to). I don't meet many teenage hustlers from West Virginia, at least not ones who are lighting the literary world on fire.

I dove into JT's first novel, the highly acclaimed Sarah. It's a Flannery O'Connor-style saga of a teenage hillbilly prostitute, or 'lot lizard,' who services truckers at truckstops. He's forced to masquerade as a young girl by his pimpin' ho of a mother in the fashionably fucked up, postmodern purgatory known as West Virginia. Hollywood was already buzzing with word that Gus Van Sant (who specializes in the fashionably fucked up) was slated to direct the feature film version.

I must admit, in the back of my mind I thought it would be nice to try to get a part in the movie. I always dreamed of playing a hooker with a heart of coal.

Sarah was surrealistically tweaked yet seemed a bit far-fetched to me. While I never knew any teenage prostitutes when I was growing up in West Virginia, I did hang out with some pretty wild folks in high school in Charleston. Back in the '70s, if you smoked you were automatically part of a club that crossed economic barriers. We all stood side by side in the George Washington High School smoking area. And if you smoked pot, well, then, those barriers were completely obliterated.