They really don’t make literary hoaxes like they used to. Mostly because they can’t: The infinite, unpitying reach of the internet pretty much guarantees that even the cleverest and most committed fabulist will be unmasked sooner than later. (Though it hasn’t managed to crack a few good secrets yet, like the true identity of Neapolitan novelist Elena Ferrante). So it is that The JT LeRoy Story’s apocryphal subject—a self-confessed former child prostitute and truck-stop junkie turned internationally acclaimed memoirist—still stands as one of the book world’s last pre-social-media long cons, and one of its greatest.
Emerging in the late ‘90s with a pair of harrowing bestsellers and a seemingly fully-formed media persona, LeRoy quickly became a celebrated pet of the bohemian glitterati: a gender-fluid, fashionably eccentric figure courted by Hollywood alt-stars (Winona Ryder, Gus Van Sant, Asia Argento), musicians (Madonna, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed) and writers (Dennis Cooper, Mary Karr). But “his” searing accounts of a life lived on the razor’s edge weren’t just greatly exaggerated, they were entirely fabricated—the whole-cloth creation of a thirtysomething San Francisco housewife named Laura Albert who had grown up in a troubled home in Brooklyn and never even seen a truck stop until Argento made The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things into a movie.
That the ruse got as far as it did—when LeRoy’s increasingly high profile demanded a real-world avatar, Albert enlisted her sister-in-law Savannah Koop to appear in public in JT’s signature wig and oversize sunglasses—is a testament not just to the times, but Albert’s singular dedication to her creation. A relentless self-chronicler, she kept reams of home videos, notes, and mementos, along with extensive (and questionably legal) tape recordings of her conversations with dozens of celebrities and collaborators. Those resources are crucial to Author‘s impressively rich reconstruction of LeRoy’s rise and eventual downfall, but it’s not exactly accurate to call them complete. The film’s main source is also its biggest blind spot: Albert takes up so much screen time with her admittedly riveting version of events that other perspectives hardly enter.
That may be just be an inevitable byproduct of all the bridges burned in the wake of her exposure; it’s hard to imagine Bono or Billy Corgan volunteering to pop in and explain on camera exactly how they got duped by a stay-at-home mom with an overactive fax machine and a possible personality disorder. Director Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) is a clever—if sometimes too credulous—observer, and he knows exactly how to build a moment, whether it’s Savannah standing wobbly and dazzled at the center of a red-carpet frenzy in Cannes, or Courtney Love pausing in the midst of a tape-recorded pep talk to inhale “a tiny little line” of cocaine.
Even when the film fails to ask so many of the questions its narrative begs, Author is still a tricky, fascinating look at the strange nexus of art, artifice, and the intoxicating cult of celebrity. To the end, Albert—a woman who often seems smart and self-deluded in equal measure—still categorically rejects the word “hoax,” and insists that everything she did was in the spirit of some remarkably sui generis form of honesty. Is she crazy, or crazy like a fox? Maybe both. Or maybe she’s just the living embodiment of a classic line from “Doll Parts,” the seminal ‘90s anthem by Love’s own former band: “I fake it so real/I am beyond fake.” B+