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Coal Miner Mother of a Mess

In which we call bullshit on J.T. LeRoy's "essay" in the Oxford American's music issue

A couple of Fridays ago, my wife and son were out playing softball, and I found myself baby-sitting our infant daughter. Having gotten her off to bed, it seemed as good a time as any to tear into the Oxford American's annual music issue, so I uncorked a big bottle of cheap Chardonnay, stoked my jambox with a mother lode of CDs and dug in.

A few words about the magazine: Each summer the quarterly, now-Arkansas-based journal gives itself over entirely to music, and this year's model is on stands now. As usual, it comes with a CD sampler of the artists profiled in the magazine, and as usual, the editors have rounded up an all-star lineup of writers, photographers and painters. Also as usual, the CD that comes with it is great. Producer Rick Clark has done his usual bang-up job of harvesting rare treasures from canonical artists.

The stories are far more of a mixed bag. The pieces on Jack Clement, Blind Willie McTell, Sammi Smith and Buddy Holly were all top-notch. But when it's bad, it's awful, and Racket is not the only one in his circle to have literally hurled his copy across the room. For me, it was J.T. LeRoy's "Coal Miner Mother," a whale of a tale about LeRoy's mother's reputed desire to transmogrify herself into Loretta Lynn, and LeRoy's unrequited wish that she would absorb the message of Lynn's songs.

A few words about LeRoy for the uninitiated: Almost no facts are known about this reclusive author. Indeed, it is not even certain that LeRoy is male, as he purports. At any rate, LeRoy arrived at a San Francisco equivalent of Covenant House in 1993 and told people he was then 13. He was deemed a hopeless case, but one of his therapists hooked him on the writing bug, and out came a torrent of purportedly autobiographical tales of the seamiest sort -- tales of being a gay street hustler in San Francisco; being a seven-year-old heroin addict; being turned out as a cross-dressing "lot lizard" (truck-stop prostitute) by his drug-addicted, too-young mother, who taught him how to give head using carrots; seducing his mother's boyfriends from the age of ten. And then there were his psychotic, Bible-bashing grandparents…

LeRoy was put in touch with Los Angeles author Dennis Cooper, from whose bleak novels of life in the gay street-trade underworld LeRoy seemed to have escaped. Cooper helped mold LeRoy, touted his writing, and gave him entrée into the world of underground literature. In 1997, when he was 17 and using the pseudonym "Terminator" (which he retains in part as the "T" in J.T. and which he says was his ironic hustling nickname), he published the short story "Baby Doll" in the awful-sounding collection Close to the Bone: Memoirs of Hurt, Rage and Desire. Three years and one book deal later came the first novel, Sarah, a magic-realist memoir of his lot lizard days, followed by the short-story collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, another litany of abuse and a testament to LeRoy's indomitable will and purity of heart.

By this time, he was the darling of a certain demimonde of the damned; Gus Van Sant, Courtney Love, Madonna, Winona Ryder, Marianne Faithfull, Tatum O'Neal and Garbage's Shirley Manson were all whooping high hosannas about this damaged, cross-dressing naïf. (In public, the petite, pear-shaped LeRoy usually wears a hat, huge Jackie O. shades and mangy, ill-fitting blond wigs, not to mention the raccoon-penis-bone necklace that he has made his trademark talisman.) Tom Waits even interviewed him in Vanity Fair. Most recently, LeRoy and Italian actress Asia Argento collaborated on a film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful… (And oh, yeah, he was also selected as the guest editor of this year's model of Da Capo's Best Music Writing, one of the only shots we lowly music scribes have at getting our prose immortalized in even tiny measure.)

But that Waits interview was the sum of my knowledge of LeRoy lore when I picked up the Oxford American. "Coal Miner Mother" is identified as "an essay" and it begins thusly: "I remember my momma, Sarah, stripping in the pole clubs to the song 'There He Goes' by Loretta Lynn." I groaned. I knew immediately that this story was not going to have much to do with Lynn, and from there, the Southern Gothic clichés mounted, each more preposterous than the last.

Sarah made young LeRoy record "There He Goes" by forcing him to hold a pawn-shop jambox up to a motel TV that was airing Coal Miner's Daughter…Sarah and LeRoy would make such scenes in Nashville record shops about Lynn's ownership of "There He Goes" (Patsy Cline has another version) that record store clerks would escort them out at the wrong end of a shotgun. (How very Quentin Tarantino. But I can assure you -- having lived there both before and after the time the story was set -- that Nashville record store clerks were far more like Jack Black in High Fidelity than the Gimpkeepers in Pulp Fiction.)…Sarah would get wasted and tell people that she and LeRoy were not just the daughter and grandson of coal miners -- hell, they were coal miners themselves! When people would doubt that J.T. was a miner, she would wonder "Ain't they read they Dickens?!"…That Sarah called all her boyfriends "Doo" during this era….That Sarah, J.T. in tow, would perform Lynn songs at Nashville open-mike nights, her face daubed in charcoal to simulate coal dust. And then, when the crowd would hiss, she would flash them her bush. (How very Sharon Stone!)…Later, she fashioned a Coal Miner's Daughter outfit from materials purloined from the Salvation Army, and she and LeRoy would shoplift food and liquor from Publix stores…

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