Hustler Chic

J T Leroy's first novel, "Sarah," was a story of innocence not just lost but kicked, beaten and shot through the heart. The book, which was at least partially autobiographical, concerned a boy who idolized his addict-hooker mother so much that he began dressing as a girl and turning tricks at a truck stop when he was 12. "Sarah" was dark and freaky, but unapologetically entertaining. It included what has to be the most rip-roaring rescue mission ever pulled off by transvestite prostitutes in a tractor-trailer. The book made the best- seller lists in San Francisco and Los Angeles last year. LeRoy is now 21 and something of a cult figure. The acknowledgments page of his new story collection, "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," cites his friends Courtney Love, Dorothy Allison, Mary Gaitskill, Mary Karr, Gus Van Sant, Suzanne Vega and John Waters, among others. Anybody who's lived the life that LeRoy has needs a support system--and, between them, the folks on that page have recovered from just about everything.

"The Heart" is a powerful, if inconsistent, collection that reads roughly like a memoir. LeRoy says he wrote the stories as therapy between the ages of 14 and 17, and the resulting book feels like a dry run for "Sarah." In "Disappearances," Jeremiah is 4 and living with a foster family when his teenage mother, once again named Sarah, blows into town, reclaims him and drags him out for a horrific life on the road. When he pines for his foster parents, Sarah tells him, "Your fosters, they're dead as doornails... Cops killed 'em... 'cause of you... that's why we hadda go. So you better not talk to cops or social workers, nobody... or we'll get killed, cut up." As the book progresses, Jeremiah learns to shop-lift, cleans the blood from his mother's arm after she shoots up, fends for himself while she turns tricks, and becomes accustomed to the sentence "This is your new daddy." Sarah's boyfriends abuse him in every conceivable way, and he internalizes the abuse and sexualizes the pain. In the final story, "Natoma Street," Jeremiah is a 15-year-old hustler paying another hustler $100 to beat him--and to tell him that he's beautiful.

OK, so it's not a beach book. "The Heart" is less polished and imaginative than "Sarah." Some of the stories read like journal fragments not quite forged into art. Still, young Jeremiah's unshakable love for his mother can be heartbreaking. LeRoy manages to write simply about the most tangled of emotions--and to describe, without hatred or self-pity, the most monstrous of deeds. At 21, he has forgiven far more than most people could have even survived.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things