For all but the strongest writers, acquiring a cult of personality can torpedo your craft into the crapper. Amassing a readership hopped up on myth all too easily lulls any urgency you might feel to get your ideas across to a greater, largely indifferent, audience. For 24-year-old author JT LeRoy, the temptation to play to the peanut gallery must be great. And lest you be schooled in his much-celebrated troubled past or current favor with select totems of bohemia, his latest work, a novella titled Harold’s End, might seem rather ordinary.
Like LeRoy’s two previous books—2001’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and 2000’s Sarah—Harold’s End makes use of LeRoy’s own turbulent life history. In interviews, LeRoy has claimed his mother was a drug-addicted prostitute who worked truck stops across the country. By his early teens, he joined her in the trade.
Harold’s End is the rewrite of a LeRoy short story that appeared in McSweeney’s, handsomely augmented with eerie watercolor portraits of his characters by Australian artist Cherry Hood. The book tells the tale of how Oliver, a homeless San Francisco prostitute, is taken in by an unusually attentive trick named Larry. Though young, Oliver is already lost to the world of emotion. Like his posse of streetwise mates—Gotti, Serenity, and Crayon—Oliver is unretrievably skittish and cynical decades beyond his years. Larry treats Oliver to a Thai dinner, lets the lad stay at his house, and scores him balloons of dandruff-white smack. Larry also gives him a pet, a snail Oliver names Harold. The book revolves around Oliver’s growing acceptance of his new animal companion, who is as unwittingly vulnerable to the shell-crushing weights of the world as Oliver himself.
LeRoy has been praised by Lou Reed, John Waters, Tom Waits, Suzanne Vega, Dave Eggers, Chuck Palahniuk, and others who got their own start peddling hardscrabble tales from either emotionally or culturally rough landscapes. Harold’s End, indeed, has some fine qualities. The book is economically written and free from cliché. But it is also has a few ill-defined passages that blur the narrative like a junkie’s nods. And for all its bravado, Harold’s End does little more than re-devise Holden Caulfield with a greater shock quotient. Not surprisingly, LeRoy’s books have been described as Harry Potter for alienated youth. It’s a good hustle, but to score some serious lit cred he’ll have to turn some greater tricks.