Thursday, September 15, 2022

On Literary Lineage: Considering JT Leroy by Su Zi



   A trilogy is a considerable artistic achievement. We ought to rightly salute such efforts to contribute to the culture, whether the culture of their time does so or not. In the canon of the literary arts, its critical history, there are lines of development for craft, for philosophy, for even the intermedia conversations of groups of artists that may or may not exist in face-to-face time.

    We who read, who read with knowledge of the literary arts, do more than taste a plot; a text exists both inside its time and in conversation with other texts, and a far more rich reading experience is to be had with awareness of these intertextual conversations. In consideration of a trilogy, the text continues this conversation with considerable commitment.

   And if the trilogy in question is taboo, this conversation between texts exists outside of the dominant culture of its creation. Many art forms have had entire genres that existed as taboo in their times and often beyond into history. Our current century has had a philosophical flux of both reconsideration of previously marginalized and taboo voices, and renewed efforts to silence them. At the release of the first volume (Sarah) in what is now a trilogy, the work of JT Leroy entered the arena of controversy, not for the text, but for the performance art that accompanied the publication: a controversy that still excites some emotion, but again not for the text itself.

    The folly of this lack of a formalistic view has historical antecedents dating back to mythic histories, and current culture is now just embracing the work of the last century that has previously been taboo. Since the trilogy’s first volume, first edition (Bloomsbury 2000) bridges the timeline of centuries and continues into those first years with the culminating edition (Harold’s End, Last Gasp, 2004), we who read ought to avail ourselves renewed consideration.

    While Albert Mobilio’s New York Times (2005) review does reference Genet and Selby, and Lindsey Novak’s Bomb Magazine interview does mention Wilde, the trilogy’s more overt antecedents seem to be somehow shadowed. The trilogy’s protagonist, Jeremiah in one work, Oliver in another, is a Dickensian child: a first-person point of view of disenfranchised denizens still not spoken of in polite company. However, there’s no sense of the dire and dirty here, but rather a comedic aspect: in Sarah, the protagonist is being fed steamed wild onions and compares that meal to his previously experienced “fine French shallots he sautés in a delicate saffron-infused lobster-chocolate-reduction sauce” (50), and it is the reader that realizes both meals are from truck stops. The elegant elaboration of Dickens is visible throughout the trilogy, with a certain timeless resonance:” there’s only the hum of moths batting against the caged-in light bulb in the middle of the row, crickets, and the low rumble of an isolated truck driving down Orange Blossom Trail” ( the heart is deceitful above all things 112). The streetwise cast aways of Dickens’ London have emigrated in the intervening time to American truck stops and strip clubs, and again to the street itself: “Everyone thought he was a vice cop when he started coming around, just cruising the block slowly in that big old silver Pontiac” (Harold’s End 9). Thus, a view of this trilogy only for the revisionist recontextualization of Dickens, it would position the work as post-modernism.

    Towards the last third of the twentieth century, deconstructed and taboo works found (and still find) a variety of genres available to them, but few were as potent as Punk. The rightful heir to the now-recently-re-esteemed Beat movement, Punk still has performing musicians. In the literary realm, there was the work of and now the namesake award for New York’s Kathy Acker. Jonathan Thornton described Acker’s work as’ “intentionally transgressive, engaging in shock tactics […]to engage with such issues as childhood trauma and sexual abuse” (; and although Acker died in late 1997, her namesake award is still given, the value of that literary approach recognized. In this trilogy of Dickensian-Ackerian gist, released within a handful of years in a continuing conversation of topic, of text, we who read are faced with three different publishers for one trilogy. That the Bloomsbury and Last Gasp editions can be located in hard bound format, with the Last Gasp edition being particularly lovely, these are still disparate volumes. While reconsideration of the work more appropriately recognizes it as postmodern, at least, and Punk for whenever that becomes as recognized as the Beats now are, the presentation of the trilogy overall is an overdue concern. For a press neither afraid of the taboo, the marginalized, or of work that poses critical considerations, this trio ought to be in a rightly deserved boxed set. For we who read, our dissimilar editions will be cherished, nonetheless.

Literary Saga of J.T. Leroy

Su Zi is a writer, poet and essayist who produces a handmade chapbook series called Red Mare. She has been a contributor to GAS from back when it was called Gypsy Art Show, more than a decade ago.


Check out her author page on Amazon.

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