I write from this sick shit that's in me, stuff I'm still trying to work out. - JT LeRoy
JT LeRoy's second offering to the literary world, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, made many murmurs when it was released in 2001 for many reasons, not the least of which is LeRoy himself or the stark subject matter. Like many authors, he draws the work from his own life for his writings. While it is not rare to see a writer's life froth with tragic tales, it is rare to see someone so young talk about it in such a way.
Born in 1980, LeRoy is still quite young. He started writing around the age of 16 as part of a drug rehab program. Although published after his first novel, Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things was actually written first. He thought Sarah was more artful, however, and wanted it released first.
Both this book and Sarah document LeRoy's childhood and it is clear from the start that The Heart will not be a happy story. You watch as a four year old child is taken away from his foster parents by his 18 year old birth mother. As lie after lie pour from her mouth, it is easy to see the sad path the story will take.
The Heart has the pallor of a fresh wound, newly patched and cleaned: fixed for now, but not healed. Other books, like Dorthy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, capture the same type of thing, but the view and feel of it have a much more reflective feel and you can tell that the author has left part of it behind. LeRoy's writing has a sense of now and draws you in through a voice that can only be achieved by one his age: not young enough to forget every instant of this but not old enough to have it become an experience. You can tell that this isn't quite in the past for him. Although the language is beautiful and peppered with words you often only think of on the SAT, the overall feel captures a child's view and a child's mind. You never forget how young he is, though he rarely mentions exact age. It's more of a feel as his world lens is keyed in such a way that you don't need to know a number - you get a feel, which is more important.
It is a dark read: the child hero suffers under the emotional and physical abuse of his mother, the physical and sexual abuse of her boyfriends and husbands through the years, contrasted starkly by the different brand of abuse afflicted in the times where he finds his way to his extreme Christian pastor of a grandfather. He does not, however, lose a child's voice, nor does LeRoy move away by making this a commentary on abuse. Throughout the book, the child seeks one thing: to be loved. He finds it only in the abuses heaped upon him.
The book is roughly chronological from beginning to end, though each chapter differs greatly in format. Indeed, each chapter can be read as a stand alone story, though together they form much more. This is far from a congealed narrative -- it is a well thought out and planned creature.
But perhaps things are too deceitful....
There is, however, a strong case brought up by Stephen Beachy that JT LeRoy may just the invention of an author named Laura Albert... But that's still out to be decided. If it proves that LeRoy is a fake, then the book loses a lot of its bite and becomes a play at shadows on the wall, insulting for those that actually suffered under similar circumstances.
Editor's Update: JT LeRoy was indeed a fictional persona created by Laura Albert, who was more than a decade older than her self-proclaimed "avatar" when she began writing as LeRoy. Her own personal history is far different than LeRoy's, although the work itself was published as fiction. Savannah Knoop played the part of LeRoy for interviews and public appearances.
Joy Press. "The Cult of J.T. LeRoy." The Village Voice. June 13-19, 2001: http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0124,press,25519,1.html
Further reading regarding the possible faking of JT LeRoy: "Who is JT LeRoy?" by Stephen Beachy, New York Magazine, Oct 17, 2005 : http://newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/news/people/features/14718/index5.html