Job’s Book, Revisited

Dee Dee Vega

Pain is a very dicey business for Americans. It is a social drug with which we have a co-dependent relationship. America is founded on blood law. We are the only developed nation to still execute prisoners. Our rate of violent crime is astonishing. We do not provide healthcare to those in our society who most need it, and do not seem to mind. We poured sympathy for American victims of terrorism, yet see no fault in decimating and persecuting foreign civilians, women and children in fact, on more than dubious reasoning. Many Americans seem to feel that our cultural experience of pain allows us to act out in any way we wish. Troubling, but not surprising, with the Book of Job in our cultural consciousness. We of course, like only the Roman Empire before us, are in the starring role of God. Boy, do we love Job. Covered in boils, without his family, forsaken—all for a bet. A nasty, unfair business indeed. Biblical reality television. We love the stuff.

So it seems that there is nothing that pleases us as deeply as someone who has survived extraordinary pain and wants to share the details. Afterall, there is no idea more conceptually American (although practically absurd) as the belief that any one can grow up to be president. Enter JT LeRoy: author, hustler, former child prostitute, transgender misfit, literary wunderkind. Enter JT LeRoy: middle aged mom, failed musician, hustler, actress. After years of speculation, the final conclusive blow was struck by Gregory Knoop to end the charade of JT LeRoy. Mr. Knoop has confirmed that the person writing as JT LeRoy is actually Laura Albert, his longtime companion. The face of the rare public appearances of JT LeRoy (who conducted the last readings of his European book tour on the floor under a table), is 25-year-old Savannah Knoop, Mr. Knoop’s half-sister, who was unmasked—or rather de-wigged and sunglassed—by those meddling investigative journalists at the New York Times.

JT LeRoy, man or woman, real or fiction, is the embodiment of all that revolts us and draws us in. Laura Albert began publishing under the name of JT LeRoy in 1996 when JT would have been not only a tender teen, but a San Francisco hustler and drug addict “befriended” by a social worker and a psychoanalyst who encouraged his writing. Through the cunning use of phones and faxes, he managed not only to woo an agent, but to befriend writers such as Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill who were instrumental in the publication and unprecedented success of his first novel set in the truck stops of West Virginia where his mother forced him into transvestite prostitution—Sarah. I’m not seeking to delineate the entire complicated affair. Several months ago, Stephen Beachy of New York Magazine (again with those pesky journalists) wrote an unrelentingly excellent piece that utilizes the old Woodward and Bernstein credo “follow the money” to find out who, indeed, was the man behind the mask. And guess what, the money doesn’t end with JT—it ended with Laura Albert.

During that delightful run of literary magic, every time it seemed like JT lost his edge, he was back, stroking his literary friends, this time talking about his progressing HIV infection. My initial reaction was that this was where I drew the line at good humor. However, JT’s specific communication—just when everyone started to doubt the man (or woman) behind the curtain was real—was to not only drum up sympathy, but to add that he had Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Now what pathologically insecure street kid makes public appearances with Kaposi’s Sarcoma? Not JT. Smart indeed.

Now that the reading public knows that JT LeRoy has actually been absorbed into the fictional of his/her novels, the question arises as to what attracted us to these novels in the first place? Is it their literary qualities, or is the opportunity to see the open, bleeding wound of a drug-addict and hustler? It is now aledged that the whole affair started because Ms. Albert wanted to gain the attention of writer Dennis Cooper, who is known for his young, harrowing characters, and thought her own persona was not interesting enough. But a transgender teen hustler-cum-scribe—who wouldn’t want to talk to him? The sheer orchestration and breath of the JT LeRoy conspiracy is awesome. But Albert’s greatest accomplishment was her understanding that what we want is not just to hear a story of suffering, we want the real deal. Just being a mediocre, middle age woman wasn’t tragic enough. JT had the genuine goods.

Just when the LeRoy/Albert scandal started to rapidly unravel in the media, the author of the runaway success, A Million Little Pieces was feeling the heat, or put in the Freying pan, if I may, when those resourceful researchers at The Smoking Gun Web site uncovered that a big chunk of author James Frey’s tale of addiction, incarceration and redemption, which had been published as a non-fiction memoir, was highly imaginative to say the least ( Frey lied about the amount of time he spent in jail (several weeks in Frey’s book, compared to the reality of an over-nighter and a fine), his torturous addiction treatment at the Hazeldon clinic—and his eventual redemption. Frey’s book was released with largely unremarkable sales until media matriarch Oprah Winfrey added it to her book club and his success skyrocketed. Frey’s story is in some ways even more interesting then LeRoy’s. While JT’s scandal was a series of intrigues and social schemes in the pages of Nerve, the hottest galleries and events, James Frey is just a confused white guy who couldn’t even manage to get a decent drug addiction going to write about.

When the news first broke that Frey had dramatically embellished his “memoir,” including the infamous “I-was-given-a-root-canal-with-no-novocaine” story which readers lapped up like daytime telly—his editors and even Oprah said that it wasn’t the truth, but the theme of redemption in Frey’s “story” that was important. Well, they were wrong. Even Oprah. It was the truth that mattered. Frey was strung up by his balls, made Oprah cry on national TV and has the writing career prospects of a chimp trying to produce Hamlet. The lesson is that if you’re going to sell grief, it sure as hell better be real. And we want every gory detail. A Million Little Pieces degenerated before Frey’s eyes into A Million Little Pieces of Bullshit, a book clearly no one wants to buy.

Hubert Selby is arguably one of the most disturbing and intensely authentic fiction writers of post-war America and serves well to illustrate this notion of public pain. Selby, while no doubt a weirdo, was an ex-merchant marine who lived out his later years writing novels and short stories rife with drug addiction, sex, self-loathing, masturbation, dog fights—you name it. While considered by critics to be a vital voice in modern writing, today is his presence is most strongly felt in the music of the young Lou Reed who was consciously trying to capture Selby’s ambience in his songs, in jarringly vicious film adaptations of his books such as Last Exit to Brooklyn (who’s publication incited an obscenity case in British court) and Requiem for a Dream. Films both so disturbing in and of themselves that their reputations precede them. Indeed, it’s hard to come by Selby himself. Most of his books are now out of print or at least difficult to find. We love the pain and archetypal terror of his work (anyone who has seen or read Requiem started immediately saving for mom’s retirement). Yet, the persona of Selby the man has not just evaporated, he is invisible. We know that the most daunting part of Selby is that he had to sit and think of these stories. Most importantly, his skills as a craftsman in his manipulation of literary form so far supercedes the likes of “LeRoy.” He rarely uses punctuation and writes pointed, often phonetic dialogue that demands work on the part of the reader. Yet, Selby has vanished and the remains of his work, like Lazarus, are raised up for a parlor trick every so often.

Philosopher Elaine Scarry’s seminal work, The Body in Pain, posits that ultimately pain is the only tangible tool we have with which to prove reality—that we do indeed exist. Life or an experience must be real if we can quantify the sensation of pain. If we hold this concept as truth, then perhaps writers like Laura Albert and James Frey are just lost people who sought to grab hold of pain—and thus their own reality—more fully. Perhaps they are simply opportunists who knew that those particular realities they were peddling were marketable. But where does that leave us? Why do we value the experience of authentic pain so profoundly? I don’t have that answer. I do know that the axiom of “that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is not necessarily true. The truth about JT LeRoy and the fable of James Frey have teased the swift sword of cultural disintegration. Sooner or later their pain, once so real, will just be a myth like Job.