Night Crawler

The Voice of Sarah

It begins with the penis bone of a raccoon, a slender finger of calcified tissue that dangles "like a halo" in the opening pages of Sarah, the stunning debut novel of Tenderloin dweller J.T. LeRoy. The raccoon bone is a symbol of consecration, sexual potency, protection, and, most important, ownership. It is placed around the neck of a young boy eager to follow his mother's example, and to become one of West Virginia's top-flight "lot lizards," the truck-stop whores who offer succor to long-haul drivers moving along the interstate. Though it is described whimsically -- lying on his mother's stolen black sweater "yellowish white like tobacco chewers' teeth" -- the bone talisman is not a flight of fancy. Twenty-year-old LeRoy assures me that many Southern folks wear coon bones as sexual amulets, especially she-male lot lizards, "so their lovin' is so good no trucker would think to worry himself over a little ol' thing like a cock."

LeRoy knows. He sells the bones on his Web site at www.jtLeRoy.com.

As a child, LeRoy trailed behind his mother while she turned tricks throughout the South. By the time the 14-year-old had "parted ways" with his mother in San Francisco, he had already picked up some of the finer nuances of the trade. "I liked hearing I was beautiful, getting touched, getting attention," explains LeRoy with his usual disarming candor. "Some of the stuff hurt. Some of it was bad, physically and mentally, but you just close that off and live off the good parts, the parts you need to survive."

Closing off the bad parts led LeRoy to drug addiction and other varieties of physical self-mutilation. But it also led him to libraries, where he immersed himself in words. One book in particular, Try -- Dennis Cooper's novel about a boy who is abused by two gay men -- so influenced LeRoy he began using the main character's name when hustling. With the help of a librarian, LeRoy contacted Cooper on the pretense of doing a zine interview and the two became friends. LeRoy's therapist, Dr. Terrence Owens, head of the adolescent unit at St. Mary's, suggested the 15-year-old begin writing about his experiences for Owens' graduate students at USF, and, with a little pushing from Cooper, he did. Soon, the weekly feedback on LeRoy's writing became more important than getting high. LeRoy acquired a fax machine, which he carried around with him everywhere, even while squatting or flopping at friends' houses, and used it to send Owens and Cooper his writings, which they circulated among literary cohorts. Eventually, LeRoy found his narratives included in the New York Press, an alternative weekly, and the sexually oriented Web site Nerve; he found himself being offered an agent and a book deal. For a person who was used to feeling worthless, the pressure of success was nearly debilitating. LeRoy abandoned the book project a number of times, returning to more familiar behavior. But after a few setbacks, he wrote Sarah. Sober.

There is no doubt Sarahis autobiographical fiction: In it, a slender, golden-haired boy tries to gain his mother's love by becoming like her, even going so far as to wear her clothes and take her name. But when maternal love is not forthcoming, "Sarah" pushes the limits, which results in miserable addiction and self-abuse. Then, miraculously, he is wrenched from the pit of anguish by a truckload of colleagues, and offered hope. But the splendor of Sarah does not lie in the honesty of the tale. Plenty of writers have wallowed in the near-fatal corruption of the spirit -- Nelson Algren, Charles Bukowski, and Jim Carroll, to name a few. The power of Sarahlies in LeRoy's voice.

In real life, when LeRoy feels nervous or vulnerable, he stutters so violently that it is agonizing to hear, and nearly impossible to understand. It is this awkward juxtaposition of LeRoy's hard-core street savvy and raw, wide-open helplessness that made his early essays, published under his street name Terminator, so compelling.

But this is not the voice of Sarah.

Sarah's voice is the delicate, winsome Virginia drawl of a Southern Gothic belletrist. Its genre might be described as contemporary Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

The tale's hero lives in a dreamland truck stop, surrounded by glamorous lot lizards and beautiful she-males whose specialties -- geisha girl, cheerleader -- are known far and wide. Their pimp is a benevolent, mysterious man, part Choctaw Indian and part Santa Claus, named Glading Grateful ETC..., who dresses his charges in the most expensive silks and releases them from duty when they fall in love. The chef at the truck stop's Dove Diner is a love-reformed lot lizard who creates sublime dishes, such as foie gras with apple crisp in verjuice with grilled mango, and cider-cured, spit-roasted pork loin with grilled figs and sweet Vidalia onion purée (recipes inspired by one of LeRoy's famous San Francisco chef "dates" who used to masturbate while LeRoy recited his recipes). Although Dove's is a whore's paradise, childlike jealousy and a pathological eagerness to please drive "Sarah" across the damnable Cheats River to receive a blessing from the lot lizards' patron saint, the Holy Jack's Jackalope (a stuffed rabbit with ever-growing deer antlers). While waiting to utter the traditional prayer -- "JesusFuckShitFuck" -- and be baptized by burning drops of moonshine, Sarah falls into the clutches of the darkly masculine Le Loup and his No. 1 whore, Pooh. It is Sarah's tragic inability to refuse anyone's attention that eventually leads him to Three Crutches, "the roughest, toughest truck stop in all of West Virginia," where acidlike ramps (imagine onions crossed with garlic) grow out of the swamp and pedophiles run amok. Three Crutches is drenched with backwater superstition and indiscreet piety; hooker wisdom -- spraying Bianca on your hand if your "date" doesn't smell hygienic, for example -- gives way to folk magic, which holds that placing a black snake, belly up, on the road will surely bring rain. Sarah is at first mistaken for a young female saint whose touch protects truckers, but when the blessings fail his true gender is discovered; Le Loup brutalizes him and turns him over to Stacey, a "bald, obese house daddy with over-tweezed eyebrows" who watches Portuguese soap operas. Sarah finds himself working for glue and solvents, anything that will block out the pain, and his addiction becomes so consuming that when two lizards from the Dove Diner come to his rescue, he can only think of his next fix.

The degrading but captivating intricacies of the plot aside, LeRoy's ease with language, his lyrical descriptions -- Le Loup's room, ensconced in thick, matted brown bear fur; a whore's hug that feels like being cradled in a twig nest -- and his graceful use of colloquialisms (e.g., "hotter'n a goat's butt in a pepper patch") are enough to make Sarahworth reading. His wide-eyed, tragicomic optimism makes Sarahworth reading again. It is, in fact, the transmission of defiant, childlike innocence that gives Sarahroom to breathe, and keeps its subject matter from consuming the spark of its protagonist. Despite all evidence that hope is futile, we are left with just that -- bittersweet, lingering hope -- at the end of the tale.

LeRoy, who is painfully uncomfortable around strangers, cannot tour in support of his book. Public readings are absolutely out of the question. (The last time he shot up was after a book reading by Dennis Cooper that left him feeling unhinged.) In spite of the obstacles, there will be readings: In San Francisco (at Books, Inc. on Thursday, May 18) by fans Mark Ewert, Kevin Killian, Beth Lisick, and Carol Queen; in New York by Bruce Benderson, Mary Gaitskill, Laurie Stone, and Suzanne Vega; and in Los Angeles, by Dennis Cooper, Lydia Lunch, and Jerry Stahl. Sarahrecently garnered rave reviews in the New York Times, Spin, and London Times. There are rumors of a bidding war for the film rights. In just over a month, I've read the book three times. LeRoy knows of the novel's success, and still is fraught with insecurity.

"I wrote Sarahfrom this really pure, honest place," he says, "from deep inside. Just feeling, like Braille. I hope it is a book people will feel. I guess my biggest fear is that no one will give a shit."

LeRoy's biggest fear should be that everyone who reads the book will give a shit, and public celebrity will be sure to follow.

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