It's not surprising that before J.T. Leroy allowed himself to be photographed and interviewed, many people conjectured that he was actually an alias for Los Angeles "homo-noir" novelist Dennis Cooper. Leroy's characters could easily be friends with Cooper's--mumbly, dejected gutterpunks who suck dick but wouldn't necessarily call themselves "gay" and wear necklaces from the penis bones of racoons. One of the main differences between the two authors is that Leroy's fiction is rooted in his own horrific, trick-turning teenage years. Also, Cooper's fiction is actually chilling and subversive, while Leroy's is interesting but utterly conventional.
Harold's End is a beautifully bound and printed novella that originally appeared with a different ending in McSweeney's three years ago. With lush watercolor illustrations of the book's characters by Australian artist Cherry Hood, sensuous endpages, and a green fabric bookmark, the book's jewel-like beauty stands in stark contrast to the ugliness of its subject matter.
The story follows a wounded, junk-addicted street kid named Oliver, who wearily hooks up with Larry, a mysterious man of money who keeps Oliver in hot meals, soft pillows, and quality smack in exchange for indulgence in Larry's scatological fetish. Sugar daddy Larry gives Oliver a pet snail, and for the first time in his life, Larry has something pure and innocent to protect and care for, and thus Harold The Snail takes on incredible significance in Oliver's life and provides an easy and obvious literary symbol for Larry's lost innocence.
Despite the fact that Harold's End features boys taking enemas and squirting them on old men, snail mucus, drug talk, and plenty of naughty language, the story itself is as traditional and quaint as a Barbara Kingsolver tale. The symbolism is high school-English obvious, narrative backstories are hinted at and revealed appropriately, and in the end the character grows and learns to actually love. Leroy even lifts one spare-thy-opponent scene from Karate Kid 2, although it's dubious that he's old enough to have seen Mr. Miyagi's compassionate dominance.
Harold's End isn't a bad read. Leroy is good with sentences and phrases, if not subversion, and the subject matter keeps the book moving at a good clip. But if you really want to have your head rattled a bit, start searching for Cooper, Dennis.