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Descent of Man 

In J.T. LeRoy's world, the heart is a lowly hunter.

J.T. LeRoy "writes like Flannery O'Connor tied to the bed and plied with angel dust," according to fellow author Jerry Stahl.

Apt description.

But if the collection of nightmares that comprise his latest book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, is indeed semi-autobiographical, the most remarkable thing about this 20-year-old prodigy is that he survived, period.

A gender-bending male prostitute at 12, LeRoy was encouraged by a San Francisco therapist to journal the anger and confusion out of his system. Interviewed by Tom Waits for Vanity Fair, he explained:

"I think I have parts of me that get frozen in ice. ... It's like the 'In Case of Emergency' box--writing is like hammering at the box or thawing it, and the words start to liquefy in my hands."

Those early stories, which made him a California cult figure by the age of 15, are the fodder for those found in The Heart. They also inspired Sarah, the astounding novel LeRoy completed in his late teens, which Gus Van Zant will soon film.

So, LeRoy's life is a cabaret now--at least on the surface. Courtney Love e-mails, and a circle of celebs squires him around. Besides Vanity Fair, he has appeared in Newsweek and the infamous Interview, among other high-profile publications. Yet he's always photographed in some elaborate disguise, or from the neck down, or with face otherwise obscured. His cathartic "bibliotherapy," he admits, has not been totally successful.

"I keep waiting for it to fix me," he told Waits. "And I keep looking at my life and saying, 'When does the magic fairy come along?'"

If The Heart is that life, in disguise like its author, then that magic fairy will need industrial strength dust. The book is a thrill ride of excruciating episodes chronicling one child's macabre journey from his foster parents' loving home to his teenage monster mother's final and almost welcome descent into madness. And it contains, in one deceptively simple sentence, one of the most accurate and therefore terrifying observations about us all that has ever been penned:

"It's always easy to convince people it's OK because if it isn't then they have to get involved," protagonist Jeremiah explains, as yet another casually concerned onlooker takes the easy way out of his life one dark, dark day.

It's the day that his mother, wearing only a black trench coat, exposes herself to the manager of the grocery store to prove she has not been stealing. A baby herself, Sarah has snapped after years of drug and physical abuse, relying on her child for physical and emotional sustenance. To that end, Jeremiah wanders from dumpster to dumpster, looking for salvageable morsels, a ritual he has, by then, perfected. "Hardly bit, not wet with spit" is one of the street urchin chants he learns very early on, along with obscenely misused Bible verses meant to justify the perversions he suffers daily.

By this time, Jeremiah's mind is also a mess. He believes that the bloody, tortured Jesus with whom he is so often disciplined was hauled up on the cross for his personal sins: bed wetting, thumb sucking, carsickness. Every normal childhood "oops" is another thorn in the crown.

He has just missed incineration in a crank manufacturing fire. He has been dressed up like a girl to sell himself to male truckers and to stand in for his mother with possible stepfathers.

He slips effortlessly from male to female, just as he has learned to slip "chicken" (Wild Turkey) into his soft drinks to sleep and little blue pills down his throat to stay awake. His mother doesn't want him to doze while she's driving all over America in search of the next wrong man.

"The ones who buy me candy don't last long. The ones who slap her last longer, but not as long as the ones who beat her with their fist, or me with their belt," he says. No additional comment needed.

But critics have commented plenty. LeRoy has been called manipulative and melodramatic. But maybe we need to feel, just this vividly, what it's like to be savagely beaten, raped, left to sleep in urine-soaked dog houses, alleys and roadside rag piles. This book is indeed like the car crash and war zone footage we guiltily ogle on the evening news. But this has to be exactly how a child's mind is slowly turned inside out, making pain feel like love and love something you can't have for mysterious reasons you no longer have the strength to question.

This has to be what it's like. And feeling it, up close and personal this way, while nowhere near the reality, may be the only penance most of us will pay for doing that quick "You need any help, son?" and then walking away from the wreckage, relieved by a child's world-weary nod. Ironically, perhaps it is LeRoy and all the people like him who die for our sins daily.

Fighting Demon Fame now in addition to all the others, the only dust jacket bio he offers is:

"J.T. LeRoy lives in California. He writes for NY Press, Shout Magazine, and The Face. His homepage is www.jtleroy.com. His e-mail is le_terminator@hotmail.com He still enjoys playing whiffle ball."

Just the dispassionate, "approach/avoid" message one might expect from the manchild who lived all this. After what I've read, I have no words worthy of e-mailing to J.T. LeRoy. Except maybe: Stay with us, kid. And ... don't forget to write.

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