Sometimes, very occasionally, the story behind a book is more interesting than the story in the book. J T LeRoy's Sarah is as extreme an example of this syndrome as one is ever likely to find.
A couple of years ago, I was reading some new anthologies of American fiction when I became aware of several very well-written and memorable stories. Rather provocatively, their author was identified only as "Terminator". I was sufficiently intrigued to call New York for long-distance information.
I was told that "Terminator" was a mere kid - in his mid-teens. He had allegedly escaped an intolerably abusive, white-trash upbringing in the primitive backwoods of Kentucky and West Virginia. His mother, Sarah, an alcoholic, drug-addicted prostitute, was 14 when she gave birth to him. Terminator's early life had been a crazy quilt of foster homes and periods spent travelling with his mother, who taught him to service her clients, both as a boy and a girl. He had eventually made it to New York and was now publishing alongside the luminaries of the avant-garde. My informant agreed that Terminator wrote well, but added, acidly, that the boy was very ambitious: "He sure knows how to turn up on the right doorsteps."
So it would seem. Having now turned 20, Terminator has chosen a more mature name for this, his first novel. Demurely, he has retained only the "T" of Terminator in "J T LeRoy". The UK edition of the novel is garlanded with near-hysterical encomiums from the singer Suzanne Vega, the novelist Mary Gaitskill and Dennis Cooper, the "Night Lord" of American fiction. Indeed, it was Cooper's doorstep on which LeRoy really needed to turn up. He must have known that Cooper's patronage would be of inestimable value in advancing his career. Cooper is, after all, the patron saint of all young, drugged, abused, numbed and haunted pretty boys. His elegant, transgressive prose is notorious for its fetishisation of damaged boys, and for the extreme necrophilic violence of its sexual fantasies. (Cooper's fifth novel, Period, will be published by Serpent's Tail in November 2000.) Frail, blond and psychically shattered, LeRoy could have stepped straight from the pages of any of Cooper's novels. He typifies the pretty, bruised and sexually abused teenage boy - the fallen angel - that dominates Cooper's work.
Word has it that both Cooper and Gaitskill (the author of Two Girls, Fat and Thin) were instrumental in encouraging LeRoy to write. Sarah is dedicated to LeRoy's psychiatrist, his mother - Sarah - and to Cooper himself. However, despite all his early success, LeRoy remains fucked-up. He is now settled in San Francisco, but he recently revealed (in an interview with Tim Teeman, in Attitude magazine) that he has an eating disorder, hates his body, self-mutilates and stubs out cigarettes on the soles of his feet. "I need to stay away from sharp objects and things that burn." He also likes "really, really extreme sadomasochistic sex", particularly auto-asphyxiation. Writing saved him. "Being a writer is my chance to have a voice in the world." He says that he cannot feel sorry for himself because he "never felt like a kid". He claims, perhaps disingenuously, that he doesn't want always to be the "dysfunctional poster kid of the week". And yet, without his incredibly dramatic life story, would his talent have been recognised so quickly? Would it have been recognised at all?
Most writers pay lip-service to the idea that creative writing cannot be taught and that a great talent, however untutored and abused, will triumph, overcoming any drawbacks. Yet the same people would struggle to name an author who has become successful despite lacking a single middle-class benefit such as money or education, and despite being disadvantaged by outrageous sexual abuse. I cannot think of a precedent.
LeRoy allegedly had little or no formal education, let alone intellectual encouragement. He was too busy being a "lot lizard" (a truck-stop whore), or working as a "cum boy" in a Florida brothel, swabbing up sperm. Still, one source was sufficiently sceptical to suggest that there must have been a bit more "privilege" in LeRoy's life than he lets on. I don't know.
Sarah is about the life of a lot lizard. The narrator, aged 12, lives in motels with his mother, Sarah, who services the truckers. The narrator envies and competes with Sarah. He covets her leather skirts, make-up bags and bubble baths. They practise fellatio together - side by side, their heads hanging off the bed. They lower carrots down their throats, learning to overcome the gag reflex. Although pre-adolescent, the narrator can serve virtually any sexual fantasy. He has ambitions to rival and outdistance his mother; to be the best lot lizard of them all. But what he really wants is to be his own mother, to the extent that he uses her name when working.
Frustrated by his pimp's attempts to protect him, the boy runs away. But he is mistaken for a girl by another pimp called Le Loup. We are now in backwoods country, riven by omens, superstitions and folk magic. A black snake in the road portends a storm. Psychic powers are greatly valued, and truckers wear thongs, lace-trimmed garter belts and seamed stockings under their coarse jeans and big boots.
At a first reading, the novel seems slight: it is as if LeRoy has absorbed the rudiments of fiction - action, conflict, climax (involving a car chase and shoot-out), resolution and possible regeneration - and then superimposed them on his own, weird fragments of memory and fantasy.
However, as with the Terminator stories, Sarah has a strongly seductive quality, and it is impossible to forget, even if the writing is childlike at times: "The pavement princesses dress so comely in the most delicate silks from China, fine lace from France."A disassociated, fantastical feel gives the novel a faintly surreal, fairy-light radiance, which contrasts strangely with LeRoy's vivid and witty character portrayals.
What emerges most forcefully, however, is the intense neediness of the narrator: his desperate hunger for attention, affection and acclaim. This must be autobiographical. And LeRoy's ability, in his stories and in this novel, to present trauma and tenderness simultaneously is entirely his own. "This book is nothing short of a miracle," LeRoy has said. I have to agree.