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The pathology of authenticity: Percival Everett’s satire of stereotypical Black masculinity

In the year 2000, a debut novel took the literary world by storm. The novel, called Sarah, was apparently penned by a twenty-year-old HIV-positive street hustler and drug addict named JT LeRoy. An underage runaway from his West Virginia home, LeRoy had developed a cult following some four years earlier, when he began publishing short stories. His raw accounts of life on the streets, of sexual abuse and drugs and pimps and prostitutes, earned him notoriety and the admiration of a bevy of outlaw artists including Dennis Cooper, Mary Gaitskill, Lou Reed, Debby Harry, Winona Ryder, John Waters, and Jerry Stahl. A collection of stories, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, appeared in 2001 and was adapted for film by Asia Argento in 2004.

What many commentators praised in LeRoy’s writing was its sense of authenticity; every line seemed to ooze with the honesty of lived experience in the eyes of some readers. Waters called the writing “savagely authentic.” Cooper praised a “lyric beauty so authentic that it seems to bypass every shopworn standard we’ve learned to expect of contemporary fiction.” Musician Suzanne Vega said that “JT LeRoy has a gift, to be able to articulate his world so clearly and astringently.” And Booklist wrote that the author “has a genuinely authoritative voice.” As Steve Rose wrote in 2016, what excited most people about LeRoy’s work was that he “seemed to hit a cultural nerve with his lyrical, autobiographical prose, which revealed a West Virginian ecosystem of drugs, tricks, crime, abuse, damaged characters, and fluid sexualities.”

The problem was that JT LeRoy did not exist. He was the creation of Laura Albert, a New York–born Jewish woman then in her thirties (which might go some way to explain what Kirkus Reviews referred to as the author’s “preternatural maturity”). By the time she published Sarah, Albert was living in San Fransisco, where she made money as a phone sex operator while pursuing her dream of being a musician. It didn’t take long for her to cotton to the fact that the LeRoy persona would carry more weight than her own, so she dove into it headlong, going so far as to hire her partner’s sister, Savannah Knoop, to dress up in a blonde wig, dark sunglasses, and androgynous clothes to appear in public as JT LeRoy.

What is most fascinating about the whole farrago in retrospect is the extent to which smart, creative people were duped into believing the LeRoy myth. Surely Waters, Cooper, and Vega were not lying when they talked about how true-to-life the writing appeared (though they might have paid closer attention to the title of the story collection); surely part of this has to do with a desire to believe in the essential honesty of other people. But it has at least as much, it would seem, to do with entrenched preconceptions of what life must be like for a sexually ambiguous teenager and a fascination with stereotypes of street life, sex work, and the underclass. There has always been a fine line between mining this kind of material for its humanistic literary value and exploiting it in the service of making a buck.

Which is where the JT LeRoy saga dovetails with the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, the protagonist in Percival Everett’s scabrous 2001 satire, Erasure. Monk is a writer of experimental, stylistically dense and difficult novels; his biggest literary success has been his realistic novel The Second Failure. (His third book, the title can be read as a sardonic backward glance at his previous novel.) When he is not presenting abstruse critical papers about the French poststructuralists at academic conferences, Monk spends his time tending to his mother, who is ailing with dementia, his homosexual brother, Bill, and lunching with his sister, Lisa, a doctor who works out of a clinic that provides women access to abortions.

He is also appalled by the recent success of a novel by Juanita Mae Jenkins called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. A massive popular and critical success, Jenkins’s novel is praised for its frank, unsparing account of Black life in America, which in Monk’s eyes involves nothing so much as a compendium of caricatures of ghetto life as imagined by mostly white readers and journalists.

The provenance of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto is not difficult to discern. Four years before Everett published his novel, the American poet Sapphire released her first novel, Push, the story of a Black teenager burdened with an abusive mother and incestuous father, the latter of whom bequeaths her HIV along with two children, one of whom suffers from Down’s syndrome. While New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani praised Sapphire’s “generous gifts for language,” other critics were less laudatory, suggesting that the novel’s use of dialect was problematically stereotypical (“I still don’t say nuffin. This hoe is keeping me from maff class. I like maff class”) , and its sentimental approach to the power of therapy verged on pornography. These are the same difficulties Monk experiences with We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.

On the plane home from the Nouveau Roman Society conference, Monk reads a review of Jenkins’s novel “in the Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s” – that is, establishment (read: white) magazines. The review makes him squirm with barely contained anger: “Juanita Mae Jenkins has written a masterpiece of African American literature. One can actually hear the voices of her people as they make their way through the experience which is and can only be Black America.” Particularly galling to Monk is not just the fact that Jenkins is being lionized as the voice of all African Americans, but that his own latest work – a reimagining of the lives of Aristophanes and Euripides – has been deemed unpublishable and, significantly, not Black enough.

Monk’s response is to bang out a short novel called My Pafology, an angry parody of Jenkins’s book. Writing under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, Monk includes every derogatory stereotype of Black masculinity imaginable: the protagonist, Van Go Jenkins (note the surname) is nineteen and has four children by four different women. He is a vulgar ne’er-do-well who dreams of stabbing his mother to death and whose sole life ambition is to hustle enough money to buy a gun with which to rob the local Korean convenience store owner. Liberally peppered with the n-word, the novel is laced with a blatantly sarcastic mockery of what Hollywood conceives of as Black argot:

“We can get us some real money.”

“And get shot fo’ the trouble.”

“Pussy,” I calls him.

“Yeah, and yo mama got her own zip code and area code,” Yellow say.

“Well, your mama work as a roach terminator and don’t need no sprays or shit, just her breath.”

“Yo mama look like J. Edgar Hoover,” Yellow say.

“What he look like,” I ax.

“Yo mama,” Yellow say.

“Fuck you,” I say.

“Fuck you,” Yellow say.

“Fuck you,” I say.

“Fuck you,” Yellow say.

“Fuck you,” I say.

“Fuck you,” Yellow say.

Of course, this being a satire, Monk’s manuscript lands instantly at Random House, where it goes on to become a huge success – even after Monk tries to sabotage it by changing the title to Fuck – and gets optioned for film for $3 million. Notwithstanding Monk’s absolute conviction that editors, filmmakers, critics, and general readers will see the book for what it is – a bitter send-up of American stereotypes about Black men and a parodic rejoinder to We’s Lives in Da Ghetto – it is received in exactly the same spirit as Jenkins’s novel and Monk ends up displacing her as the Black literary phenomenon du jour. (That there can be only one at a time is another of the novel’s submerged critiques of American culture.) He appears on an Oprah-like television book club where the host, Kenya Dunston, reads the title out loud on air, though when she does an impromptu reading from the book itself, it appears like this: “Later you can go out and find that Jeep-muthaBeep and Beep him up. Right now, take this Beep home and get a taste. You remember how good that Beep was.”

Monk even winds up on a literary jury with four white writers where he must adjudicate his own work (he is unable to cop to writing it without giving away Leigh’s true identity). While he tries to get the book thrown out, his white co-jurors insist it should win the prize because of its searing frankness and thoroughgoing authenticity.

Coming at the end of the novel, the scenes with the literary jury are particularly barbed. Monk’s fellow jurors, accomplished literary writers who should be able to discern authorial intent, are all duped by the novel, one going so far as to proclaim it “the strongest African American novel I’ve read in a long time.” The impulse for people outside the Black community to identify authenticity based on stereotypical portrayals of Black Americans from film, television, and commercial literature precludes these supposed experts from understanding the joke at work in Monk’s novel, even taking the patently absurd (and obviously significant) pseudonym at face value.

But Everett is up to even more than that. In Erasure, he has not only provided a satire of received ideas about race in America, he has demonstrated the obverse in the surrounding story about Monk’s relationships with his family. Far from being stock characters, the Ellison clan come across as fully realized human beings, and Monk’s eventual decision to put his mother in a home (coming, as it does, after his father’s suicide, his sister’s murder, and his discovery of a long-lost half-sister) is heartbreaking without devolving into artificial sentimentality.

Erasure is narrated in the first person and framed as entries in Monk’s journal. This, he suggests is “a private affair,” though he remains open to the possibility that his pages – which include random notes for novels, a draft of a story titles “Àppropos de bottes” that is more in keeping with Monk’s own writerly sensibility than My Pafology, along with the full texts of Monk’s parody and the paper delivered to the Nouveau Roman Society – may someday be read. If the first-person narration implies a degree of unreliability, this is also baked into Everett’s text. The final line of the novel comes from Newton: “hypotheses non fingo.” While this has been translated as “I frame no hypotheses,” Bryce Gessell points out that the Latin word “fingo” can also be translated as “to contrive, devise, invent, feign.” In this case, the line carries a double irony: it pushes back against the temptation to reduce a human being to a series of literary tropes while also underscoring the contrived nature of fiction and Monk’s own feigned persona as Stagg R. Leigh.

It is no accident that Monk’s academic paper focuses on the work of Roland Barthes, who famously distinguished between langue and parole, the signifier and the signified. In his presentation, Monk makes reference to a group of Buddhists who trained themselves to see an entire landscape in a single bean. Of these ascetics, Monk remarks, “Theirs is not to extract the essential quality which makes that thing what it is, but to see it completely, in which case attention to particular features might well destroy the achievement we have been told we should admire.” It is precisely this “attention to particular features” that Monk assesses is missing from We’s Lives in Da Ghetto; his conference paper contains a critique of Jenkins’s work and explicates his own aesthetic assumptions that in turn underlie his parody in My Pafology.

Writing about JT LeRoy in New York magazine, Stephen Beachy addresses the key component of a hoax:

A good hoax is like a good con. Though a con liberates the mark from some of his material things, it also teaches him how easily he was tricked, how ready he was to believe certain stories. To “wizen the mark” is to send him back into the world a little less wide-eyed, a little more jaded, his vision now penetrating beyond the surfaces of things.

What Everett accomplishes in Erasure is to wizen his mark – his mark being the reader. By couching his satirical novel-within-a-novel in the context of a narrative about a highly intelligent, educated family man conversant with the classics and completely capable of creating imagined dialogues between Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg, Everett provides his readers with the antithesis of My Pafology in the context of the very book they are reading. At the same time, he raises questions about the nature of integrity within a capitalist system of artistic creation (of course Monk keeps the money he’s paid for My Pafology) and issues a warning about our unquestioning devotion to authenticity in a media-saturated world. If a JT LeRoy or Stagg R. Leigh were to appear among us tomorrow, how many of us would be savvy enough to recognize the con?

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