New York, New York

Looking for LeRoy

New York’s fashionably-lit are always looking for the next hot thing in plastic glasses. With the days of Dave Eggers now frozen, and Franzen quickly fading, could writer J.T. LeRoy be it?

The reading area on the fourth floor of the Union Square Barnes and Noble has seating for about 150 people, but easily twice that many showed up the evening of May 29 for a reading by J.T. LeRoy. Or, rather, a reading of J.T. LeRoy: In lieu of the 22-year-old author reciting passages from his new-in-paperback book, The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things, a group of his friends read selections for him. Friends, that is, who also happen to be celebrities, like Sandra Bernhard and Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins.

Leroy’s been called everything from ‘a mature and very gifted writer’ to a ‘literary wunderkind,’ and his first novel, Sarah, is being made into a film by Gus van Sant. He’s been profiled in New York magazine and Vanity Fair, and one of his stories inspired a song by Garbage. At times the hype surrounding LeRoy seems to obscure his work, and it’s likely that more has been published about him than he himself has written. LeRoy is perfect brain candy for the New York literary world, a crowd always on the lookout for the next big thing in books, and Wednesday’s event was full of the city’s fashionably hip and woefully well-read—tall, gaunt young men in Converse All-Stars and suit jackets, young women in clunky sunglasses and tams.

LeRoy, whose thinly autobiographical work centers almost exclusively on truck-stop lowlifes and his career as a male prostitute and junky, speaks to the marginalized, but he obviously also speaks to those not-so-marginalized who see the fashion potential in sitting just outside the campfire. LeRoy is the mirror image of the New York hipster’s aspiration: the lost soul done good, when so many in the audience, in pricey vintage t-shirts, seemed to want nothing more than to shed the trappings of middle-class life. More than a few in the audience spoke of him with a sort of rapt awe usually accorded NBA stars and minor deities. ‘This must be such an ego rush for J.T.,’ said one young man in sneakers and wool slacks who stood at the back and, despite using the LeRoy’s first name, didn’t seem to know him.

LeRoy himself is shy, reportedly so shy that he vomited at his first public appearance and refuses even to take the stage at his readings. He’s been known to skip them entirely, and it wasn’t clear whether he would make it to Wednesday’s event or not. At 6:50, Adrienne Short, who was running the event for Barnes and Noble, approached the podium and reported that the reading would begin ten to fifteen minutes late, because ‘all our readers haven’t arrived,’ and that ‘J.T. LeRoy has not even left yet,’ though where he was coming from went unsaid.

Thirty minutes later the readers hadn’t arrived, and with no further word from Short, the crowd grew restless. The noise in the room ebbed and flowed; as one side grew quiet, the other followed—hoping for the author’s arrival—then picked up conversation again when nothing happened. A kid in a gas-attendant cap stood up at the front, chatting on a cell phone, then waved to the back, apparently to his mop-haired, black-clad conversant; a few minutes later he was talking to a woman in naughty-librarian glasses who at one point pumped her hands in the air, ‘raise the roof’ style.

The readers finally arrived just before 7:30. They filed in quickly, but LeRoy, who on his book jacket has a thin face and even thinner blond hair, wasn’t with them. After a brief comment by Short, the Village Voice’s Michael Musto, who emceed the event, read introductions for each of the readers, written by LeRoy himself. LeRoy’s comments for the first reader, Sandra Bernhard, went on for just over five minutes, describing how he met her while he was getting a bikini wax in a basement in San Francisco’s Chinatown. At one point Musto paused and said, ‘Hrumph. And I’m not even getting paid for this.’ Bernhard, who read her piece with little comment and left immediately afterwards, did not seem amused.

Other readers, however, had much to say about LeRoy, and at times the event felt less like a reading than a funeral, with heaps of praise for someone eerily absent. Poet Sharon Olds—whose work includes ‘The Pope’s Penis’ and is soft-spoken, with long gray hair and a propensity to hold her hand close to her chest and make offhand comments like ‘I don’t have the courage to read the parts that are the most moving to me’—thanked LeRoy for describing the ‘actual, awful, accurate, beautiful glories of life.’

LeRoy’s work is in fact quite good, at least his fiction, and various magazine profiles of him say it began as a form of therapy while in drug rehab. The Village Voice said his works ‘call like sirens to emotional tourists looking to vacation in someone else’s torment.’ His non-fiction, on the other hand, is solipsistic; his columns in Shout and the NY Press, two publications in which he frequently appears, usually revolve around his friendships with guys like Gus van Sant and Rufus Wainwright. And LeRoy likes to implicate his friends in his own subaltern universe; in his introduction for Olds, he said that he was introduced to her work by a john who liked to read her poetry while having sex with him.

But despite LeRoy’s trickster-in-absentia introductions, the praise kept coming. Writer Arthur Bradford sang a song about LeRoy called ‘Welcome to New York City J.T.,’ one line of which went, ‘I think that J.T. LeRoy is one of the great writers living today.’ It didn’t rhyme with anything, though. Stephan Jenkins, the evening’s last reader, praised LeRoy as someone ‘who’s instantly beloved.’ Jenkins described hanging out with LeRoy in a Los Angeles bar, and how LeRoy had ‘gotten it together’ to put a sticker on pop singer Joey MacIntyre’s back. ‘L.A., as we know, is somewhere so entirely calculated, and this is someone who’s totally genuine,’ Jenkins said, adding ‘beyond the fact that he looks totally fucking cool.’

When Jenkins finished his selections, Musto returned to say a few final words, thanking the crowd, the readers, and ‘of course, the amazing J.T. LeRoy.’ As Musto spoke, he looked at the front left corner of the room and began to clap. As soon as the crowd started to move, a smallish figure seated in the general range of Musto’s clapping direction stood up, and was immediately surrounded by a knot of people. He had stringy blond hair and a black, over-the-eyes visor, so that most of his face was obscured. The pack, including two bookstore employees, led him to the back of the store. A few onlookers saw them leaving, and, amid whispers of ‘that’s him,’ and ‘he’s here, J.T.’s here,’ set off in pursuit.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen