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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…

Wait a minute, I suddenly thought. What the hell is a Publix store? Like I said, I lived in Nashville before, during and after that period, and I had never heard of such an animal. I guessed that it was a supermarket, and I knew that to this day, liquor was unobtainable at Tennessee grocery stores. Turns out Publix is a grocery store chain -- but until 1990 it was confined to Florida. (According to a Publix spokesperson, the chain opened its first Tennessee store in late 2002.) It was a telling misstep -- while he never specified the names of any of the bars Sarah sang in, the stripper dives she pole-danced in, the motels they stayed at, or where the shotgun-toting record store clerks were, LeRoy did manage to screw up one of the only specific places he mentioned.

A few days later, via e-mail, I confronted LeRoy and Oxford Americaneditor Marc Smirnoff with my doubts. How could such a preposterous, uncorroboratable tale, wherein one of the only two businesses mentioned by name did not check out, be passed off as "an essay" and not fiction? Within hours, I was ladled the following e-mailed dollop of mushy condescension from LeRoy's camp.

Hi John,

J.T.'s in LA right now and away from his computer. This is his assistant, Nancy. Having worked with J.T. for 4 years, I am confident that I can speak for him regarding your questions.

If you were to look at J.T.'s works, you would find that all of them are published as fiction, even those pieces that are very close to his actual experiences. This is because J.T. doesn't really believe in the concept of true fact and true fiction. The way he sees it, any event that occurs is subject to interpretation from the person involved with it. Two people may be in the exact same situation but take entirely different memories away from it, depending on what they bring to the table and their own personality. Likewise, a writer always weaves parts of his/her life experiences, opinions, thoughts, small noted details, in short, everything that they are and have been, into their writing. It would be unnatural not to do that.

So, you see? No true fact or fiction.

J.T. has, surprisingly, been asked this kind of question about his book,Sarah, which, like all his work, has a foot in reality. He has replied to these folks that yes, much of the folklore is true and he was a lot lizard in West Virginia and that ramps are a celebrated food there but he never really walked on water. It's the genre called "magical realism."

J.T. is a story teller. In my opinion, his works do everything that good writing should: they captivate, move me to tears and laughter, uplift me and fill me with wonder. I am always the better for having read and digested his words. I, of course, am not alone here. In fact, J.T. is guest editor of this year'sDa Capo's Best Music Writing of 2005. Paul Bresnick, the editor of many books in this series, upon receiving his copy of theOxford American, replied:

"BTW, I really liked your piece in the music issue of the Oxford American. It'll definitely make the first cut for next year's BEST MUSIC WRITING."

I've always felt that the main measure of a piece of writing is how much a reader enjoys it, is made to think and to feel. However, if your reliance on the facts precludes your appreciation of J.T.'s Loretta Lynn piece, I guess there's not too much we can do about that.

Please send us a copy of your story. I know J.T. would find it interesting reading. Warm regards,
Nancy Murdock
J.T.'s assistant

Wow, a total cave-in. I replied to it thusly:

SeenRashomon, have we?

I'm familiar with the whole concept of subjective reality and all that. And when LeRoy engages in magic realism and flights of fancy in his memoiristic fiction, that's fine, so long as it's labeled as fiction. I don't care if J.T. lived every line of his novels and short stories or not.

But when it's labeled as "an essay" in a magazine that is entirely given over to nonfiction articles (with the exception of a comic strip or two and some poetry)…That's another matter. It just seems like lying to me. But then again I am a facts-bound music writer and thus, evidently, unlikely ever to be included in any Da Capo anthologies.

And yet to a certain degree, I could see Murdock's (or LeRoy's, or whoever it was who sent that e-mail) point. By a broad definition of "essay" -- say, this one: "a short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author," which I got off dictionary.com -- "Coal Miner Mother" would pass muster. It certainly would in LeRoy's worldview, where words have no meanings save for those we apply to them individually. But still, most of us lowly, uncreative types -- those of us who are yet bound to the surly bonds of facts and can't quite touch the face of God -- would agree that this story surely should have been labeled "fiction." (Or better yet, to my eye, anyway, "a parody of Southern Gothic fiction.")

At which point we turn to Smirnoff, the Oxford American's editor. At the end of a testy interview, after he questioned my credentials, cut me off several times and told me he had only glanced at the e-mails I had sent to him along with LeRoy's camp, here's what he had to say about running the piece as an essay: "Maybe a newspaper wouldn't be comfortable running a piece like J.T. LeRoy's as an essay -- I wouldn't be comfortable with the lack of fact-checking that goes on at a newspaper," he said. (Thus ignoring that it was a messed-up fact that made me call bullshit on "Coal Miner Mother.") "We have different practices. And this was a literary experiment at a literary magazine, and maybe that's not something you're comfortable with. More power to you. A literary experiment in a literary magazine…That would be my final position on it. But I'm also comfortable with you saying that it should have been a story, or an essay. I think it could have gone either way in a literary magazine. We are not a newspaper."

But we are. And the meaning of words still matters to me, and to pass this off as an essay in an issue of a magazine, literary or not, that was otherwise (save for a couple of poems and a comic strip) given over to nonfiction profiles and true-to-life, plausible essays, smacks of a bad decision at best. At worst, it could be interpreted as a fabrication, a hoax.

What you think of it depends on where you stand on the issue of "true fact" vs. "true fiction."

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