It wasn’t enough for Laura Albert to write books under the pseudonym “JT LeRoy.” She had to create an entire charade, enlisting Savannah Knoop, her boyfriend’s half-sister, to pose in public as JT. That JT was supposed to be male was easy to get around; Albert had described the JT character as an androgynous little teenage boy, so Knoop had only to put on dark glasses and a wig and voila: a wispy little twink of an author, readymade to meet her fans, which included such literary pundits as Bono and Courtney Love. Not wanting to miss out on the action, Albert passed herself off as JT’s manager, complete with British accent. This may be hard to follow - and it gets even more complex - but it all makes sense in Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story, a dynamic documentary about a strange blip in publishing history. It's breathlessly narrated by Albert like a criminal confessing a small crime; her tone, not surprisingly, is one of ‘What’s all the fuss about?” The books, she says rightly, are labeled "fiction." Anything else, she says, is extra. Agreed.
Albert didn’t need a fake persona to sell books. For readers who prefer their authors to be on the damaged side, Albert’s own messy life would’ve worked just fine. She went from being an obese child to a phone-sex operator, which isn’t quite as exciting as the teen male prostitute that JT LeRoy was supposed to be, but it’s not bad.
Of course, Albert makes the story a bit sticky when she insists that JT LeRoy really existed, deep inside her, like a ghost or something. It’s not a split personality, she insists, but rather, he came to life in her one day when she called a suicide hotline and took on a boy's persona in order to talk to a counselor. Hence, JT was born. (Albert had been doing this sort of thing for years, but JT was the first of her male alter egos to have literary aspirations.)
Albert may come off as slightly creepy when she goes on about JT being real, but she’s no less creepy than Stephen Beachy, the New York magazine writer who uncovered the harmless sham as if he'd stumbled upon the Watergate scandal, or the various rock stars who try to befriend the teenage hustler turned writer named JT. (Is Tom Waits so bored that he has to make personal calls to teen writers?) Walter Werzowa’s score, which sounds more than a little like Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle,’ weaves ominously through the story as one gullible celeb after another becomes smitten with JT, played with growing confidence by Knoop. Halfway through the movie, when Knoop, as JT, reads in front of a massive audience in Italy, I found myself nodding appreciatively. When a ruse goes that far, and is executed with such flair, you have no choice but to tip your hat.
There’s nothing here that made me want to read the JT LeRoy books – despite the original flush of publicity where buffoonish critics hailed JT LeRoy as the torchbearer of Genet and Burroughs, it sounds more like ersatz Southern gothic to me, with truckers and hookers and wayward children on the streets – and the fact that so many rock singers liked these books makes me guess Albert piled on the smut and used a lot of easy words. But I did come away liking Laura Albert. She’s grown into an attractive middle-aged woman, even if she has that nervous, unbreakable gaze seen in certain barflies, the ones who seem friendly but may get your wallet.
Feuerzeig previously directed The Devil and Daniel Johnston, another documentary where rock stars rallied around an outsider figure. That film, made in 2006, had more depth and emotion than Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Ultimately, Johnston was a much more tortured soul, and more of a danger to himself. Albert will simply cash in her dime’s worth of celebrity and continue to write, though I think she’d give it all up to hang out with rock stars. Also, despite being fascinating, the movie ends too quickly. Albert mentions a nasty childhood incident, and then we learn that she paid a meaty fine for signing a book contract as Leroy; she now writes under her own name. And that’s it.
Albert is inscrutable, though she talks a blue streak. I sensed a real vulnerability about her, which could explain why so many were drawn to her when she pretended to be JT on the phone. But why does it seem that every call she made was recorded on a cassette tape? Did she know they’d be useful in a future documentary? And where’s JT LeRoy nowadays? Is he still guiding Laura Albert’s stories, while she’s only signing them? Who’s driving the ship now?