Keep On Truckin'

Can A Boy Named Sarah Find Happiness As A Truck Stop Hooker On The Highway To Hell?

Sarah, by JT Le Roy. Bloomsbury, $20.

GOOD FICTION CAN teach us many things. That sordid affairs between middle-aged pedophiles and 14-year-old nymphets are doomed to failure. That left to their own devices, marooned schoolboys will revert to savagery and place their classmates' heads on sticks. That throwing oneself under a speeding train is a viable response to oppressive social standards, especially if one is a gloomy, morphine-addicted Russian aristocrat burned by love. And now, with the publication of Sarah, we learn that West Virginia is literally crawling with truck-driving devotees of cross-dressing children gussied up as saintly prostitutes.

The debut novel of 19-year-old writer-journalist JT Le Roy, Sarah spins the designed-to-offend yarn of a 12-year-old boy who renames himself "Sarah" after his trampy mother, because he has learned from her example that "everything in life is easier when you're a pretty girl."

Following in her stiletto-heeled footsteps, Sarah becomes a "lot lizard" (trucker lingo for a truck-stop whore), plying his trade at the Doves, a truck stop run by Glad, a benevolent pimp with the proverbial heart of gold. Things begin to go seriously downhill for poor Sarah when he runs away from Glad and ends up at the hellish Three Crutches, a rival truck stop run by Le Loup, a monstrously evil, Trans-Am driving pimp.

Once under the spell of the reptilian Le Loup, Sarah is mistaken for a saint and forced into religious servitude, expected to walk on water and offer blessings to spiritually-bankrupt truckers, in addition to his regular "escort" duties. Our beleaguered hero's (heroine's?) subsequently picaresque journey through this surreal world of drooling truckers, religious fanatics and gun-wielding hookers forms the framework for this undeniably warped and original fiction.

Le Roy, who has also published articles and edited anthologies under the ominous moniker "The Terminator," has garnered media attention (at least of the alternative variety) due to his precocious age and his own mysterious past, hinting in interviews that the impetus for Sarah was partially based upon his own experiences. While this may or may not be a case of demented hucksterism, whatever inspiration Le Roy has accumulated during his short life has helped shape a surprisingly assured first novel that is alternately frightening, moving and wacky. It's a wild ride through the dark nether-regions of gender constructs and religious hypocrisy.

As perversely imagined as Sarah is overall, the novel doesn't really shift into high gear until the title character descends into the slimy underworld of Le Loup's nightmarish brothel. When we first encounter Sarah, "dragged out" in Shirley Temple ringlets and black Mary Janes, it is apparent that this confused young boy is a naive cipher intended to personify "innocence" (despite his rather sordid line of work), existing to serve as the metaphorical punching bag upon which all of the world's foul indignities shall be released. He's a classically clueless character born from a long literary tradition--an underaged, cross-dressing Candide.

Emotionally stunted by his hard-as-nails prostitute mother who refuses to acknowledge her maternal status, Sarah adopts her identity (as well as her wardrobe) and lethargically roams the asphalt arena of Dove's Truckstop. He displays an often heartbreakingly masochistic need for affection that is explicitly played out in his rather creepy relationships with the paternal Glad and, later, the sadistic Le Loup. Although peppered with weird details (such as the raccoon penis bones Glad's "girls" must wear to connote their status as lot lizards, and the decapitated jackelope whose horns spray magical aphrodisiac dust upon the lizards who line up nightly to worship its sexual mojo), the book's early setup seems less than promising, hinting that Sarah will primarily be a mundane Lifetime Television drama tricked out in white-trash transvestite duds--a Boys Don't Cry for that ever-elusive hard-truckin'/fiction lovin' demographic.

But once Sarah is whisked down the highway to hell by Le Loup (it is to LeRoy's credit that Sarah's metaphorical loss of innocence is wackily heralded by a kick-ass black Trans-Am), Sarah is twisted into something altogether more substantial: a sneaky peek at the interchangeability of saints and whores in our culture, and a critique of the uncomfortably intimate (and possibly blasphemous) cultural alliance between religious fervor and pornographic obsession.

Upon arriving at the Felliniesque Three Crutches Truckstop and Brothel, the angelic-looking Sarah is mistaken for a religious deity by the devilish Le Loup and Pooh, Le Loup's concubine/henchwoman (or perhaps henchman; as the novel progresses, gender lines become so faint as to be non-existent). Realizing that horny truckers will just as soon pay to be blessed by a saintly prostitute as to sleep with one, Le Loup immediately imprisons Sarah in a makeshift cathedral, chaining him to a zebraskin rug beneath a huge portrait of the Pope, as bleary-eyed truckers pay big money to have the bewildered boy (whose gender still remains a secret) grant them heavenly immunity from weigh-station checks.

By the time Le Loup and Pooh (who eventually becomes a glamorous country singer with psychic abilities) force Sarah to attempt to walk on water for crowds of fanatical "good buddies," Sarah has become a sharply pointed swipe at America's religious devotion to sexual depravity, as well as a grotesque caricature of the overtly sensual rituals of organized worship.

Sarah's indignities are far from over, however, and his innocence is further eroded when he is forced to shave his head and work as a male prostitute in an even sleazier Boy's Town-like encampment run by an evil, pockmarked drag queen named Stacey. Luckily, just when it seems that things have gone about as far over the top as they can go, Le Roy manages to slap us with an even more absurd plot twist in a hilarious climax featuring a frenzied, east-bound-and-down truck chase through the twisting West Virginia mountains, with two gun-toting prostitutes dressed as geisha girls attempting to rescue poor Sarah from his captors in an out-of-control 18-wheeler.

Will Sarah escape to finally reconcile with his estranged mother? And what will he be wearing? By the time Le Roy careens his novel into its strange and poignant conclusion, readers will undoubtedly be ready for anything.

Sarah is often insightful and genuinely moving, and Le Roy seems particularly adept at spinning sympathetically believable characters out of a grotesquely surreal framework, as well as in nailing down the rough-hewn dialects of these hardscrabble souls. Technically, however, the novel is something of a mess, full of ragged edges, dangling plot lines and undisciplined writing.

Yet strangely enough, the roughshod structure of the book works to its advantage, for this is fiction crackling with the exuberance of youthful abandon, full of astringent truths and punky outrage--it seems to work almost in spite of itself.

JT Le Roy is a very young writer with an original (if still developing) voice and an appreciation for all that is freakish in the world, and with Sarah he has sent out a big 10-4 to the literary world that his is a talent to watch.

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