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Short Fiction

Of Mollusks and Men

Reviewed by Choire Sicha
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page BW07


By J.T. Leroy. Illustrations by Cherry Hood

Last Gasp. 99 pp.$19.95

(Cherry Hood)

J.T. Leroy is one of a growing number of gay confessionalist artists -- a group that includes the singer Rufus Wainwright and the film director Jonathan Caouette. Their work is regarded as redemptive, and Leroy in particular is celebrated for his terse, self-focused excavations. Perhaps this solipsistic quality will be eroded over time: As the author ages, he may yet raise his gaze from his own befouled lap and view the world around.

In Leroy's bitty new novella, Harold's End, a wary, hopeless boy named Oliver is plucked from San Francisco's infamous Polk Street hustler huddle. Plumped up in the Castro district, in the home of an older man named Larry, he is given hamburgers, the best heroin available, and a pet snail named Harold. This arrangement goes sour after an evening of non-negotiated scatological play: "The fourth day after my enema, Larry wakes me up in the afternoon. 'I'm having some people over, and I, I need you to go out.' "

Oliver, with Harold, is returned to his dirty corner and reunited with his street friends, youngsters whose names -- Crayon, Gotti, Serenity -- wouldn't look out of place in an S.E. Hinton book. But Harold's thin shell, it turns out, isn't tough enough for street life. Oh golly: metaphor.

Illustrated by the Australian artist Cherry Hood's gothed-up Margaret Keane-like watercolors of the book's characters, Harold's End is dedicated to Harold (and to "all the inadvertent losses") and very briefly introduced by the novelist/personality Dave Eggers (140 words, minus titles and proper names). It closes with an unseemly oddity: a round of applause by the editor, Michael Ray, and four pages of sweet thanks from the author.

The writing itself is a concise helping of large-print gloom-candy to tide over fans: Leroy's next most recent (and second) book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, was published in 2001. Now in his mid-twenties, Leroy has mined his reportedly troubled adolescence for these grim, tight and presumably autobiographical tales of the wasted years of a horribly abused youth.

But: Were those years really so wasted?

Leroy's fear of public appearances, frequent use of disguises, and muteness in the face of questions about his history contrast with his bad habit of having his name appear in the press amid a protective flurry of names more boldface than his. The situation has provoked speculation about the authenticity of both his persona and his work. Those questions should be irrelevant. Drawn from life or not, Leroy's work is labeled fiction. But in light of all the victim-cum-celebrity hoopla, these books serve not as fiction but as creative memoirs, delivering catharsis for those who may have been similarly situated and who see themselves in Leroy's work.

Leroy, freed by fame, fortune -- and actual hard work -- from whatever serious troubles he may have had, is no longer anyone's victim. He is now capable of being exploited only by himself, and he will face the risks that any of the once-poor but now resource-rich must when they are subject to -- or, really, subject themselves to -- a torrent of ferocious, boundary-invading consumption. All grown up, he is his own personal Kazakhstan. •

Choire Sicha, a journalist and critic, will be guest-editing Wonkette.com in February.

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