HUBERT SELBY JNR:
LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN/
23rd July 1928 – 26th April 2004
Hubert Selby Jnr is dead. His greatest novel lives on.
Andrew Darlington tries to make sense of it all...
‘a book that will explode like a rusty,
hellish bombshell over America…’
Allen Ginsberg’s prediction
for ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’
They never got around to writing the ‘Great American Novel’. So Hubert Selby Junior perpetrates ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’ instead. Hefting its title from a highway-sign midpoint Manhattan and Kennedy airport. Onto a huge shambling work vaguely derived from Henry Miller’s darker erotic imaginings speed-wrecked into William Burroughs’ coldly analytical violence. A book at once intriguing… and disturbing. Action orbits ‘The Greeks’, a ‘beat-up all-night diner’. A subterranean world populated by hoodlums, transvestites, Gays, Korean-bound conscripts, urban predators and perverts, racially stereotyped black hipster studs, Italians and Jews, plus the diversity of Peurto Ricans and wino’s who also haunt its Brooklyn environs. Their six mosaic-linked narratives form self-contained vignettes lurching spasmodically from World War II with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker’s Bebop sax wailing on the radio, to roughly the fifties, and delinquent kids smoking marijuana in the playground. As locations shift from Red Hook to the housing ‘Project’, mapping the various family groups and antagonisms trapped there.
Post-apocalyptic, without the apocalypse having taken place, you can read it as a kind of mutant dystopian Science Fiction. It inhabits the Cold War terror-preoccupations of its time, a desolation-mindset derived from impending nuclear aftermath. Or it’s a novel of some squalid blood-capitalist alternate present, mirroring its alienation and moral corruption – up-dating Cyril Kornbluth, pre-dating Anthony Burgess’ ‘Clockwork Orange’, more bizarre that J.G. Ballard, more pointed and analytically jagged than John Brunner’s ‘Stand On Zanzibar’. While comparison with Harlan Ellison’s feral street-mythology needs little elaboration. Without Selby’s great vomit-back of beautifully tainted disgust, would there have been Lou Reed’s tales of junkie sleaze, New York Doll’s teenage queens, Bukowski, Patti Smith and beyond…? Probably. But there are debts and connections to be made.
Initially picked up and announced by the Beat Generation writers – with Allen Ginsberg declaring it would ‘still be eagerly read in a hundred years’, celebrated for its liberating honesty by the counter-culture press, and championed by the anti-censorship lobby, ‘Last Exit…’ is a novel of ultimate alienation. Alienation from any meaningful relationship, alienation from values, alienation from self. Here, the body is no more than an extension of commodity to utilise, display, arrange, and exploit in the quest for sensation. Love an acquisitive act, the usage ‘scoring’ an exact contextual definition. Violence – random and impersonal, serves much the same purpose (‘…tore her clothes to small scraps put out a few cigarettes on her nipples pissed on her jerked-off on her jammed a broomstick up her snatch then bored they left her lying amongst the broken bottles rusting cans and rubble of the lot…’).
Violence is multi-layered, the victim incidental, used as a proxy target in lieu of wife, parent, employer, cop, the city in general… the self? Sex – interchangeable with violence, serves for ego-gratification. A process of catharsis. A route to asserting superiority on the most basic animal level. Then again, violence reignites with the senses – shattering veneers of alienation, breaking through into a kind of hyper-reality. Characters live unreal lives. Permanently high on ‘bennies’ (Benzedrine) and/or booze (‘…spun centrifugally around stimulants, opiates, johns…’). Eating and drinking irregularly, hurriedly and badly. They are under a constant pressure of external hostilities and internal chemical imbalance – an unreality focused by the Drag Queen Ball façade where the ‘Fairies’ are more beautiful and more feminine than real women. Violence is a sensual act, a route back to reality, an act of ego-supremacy. Blood is real. Adrenaline is excitingly real. On an even simpler level, violence is instant fun, an escape from perpetual boredom.
Sure, Selby can occasionally be accused of using violence as a plot convenience too, to round off an awkward passage with fitting finality, to get rid of an unwanted character. Evidence the “Strike” sequence, climaxed by Harry Black being beaten to pulp. There seems no internal plot motivation for this – other than that the theme is exhausted while the character remains unresolved. It could be existential, to emphasise that random violence is a permanent Brooklyn sub-current, without needing logic, or reason, or any form of internal consistency. It just happens without any external stimulus whatsoever.
Selby, a writer of extremis, grew up in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district. He was self-taught, but knew what he was writing about. Yet the purpose of the novel is not to attain realism. Instead, he shoves situations to near-overkill caricature, where – by contrast, violence can serve a crude moral purpose. The “Tralala” sequence in particular (originally published in a 1961 issue of the ‘Provincetown Review’, followed by an immediate obscenity trial!) has the kind of exact moral development of the ‘Rake’s Progress’. Tralala is fifteen, on the fringe of prostitution and petty crime. She rolls sailors and ‘doggie’ GI’s. Goes uptown with an Officer in hope of greater material reward. Screws for money, or to spite other girls. She’s already instrumental in beating up one soldier who attempts to retrieve his ID card from a wallet she’s stolen from him. Until, with a two-dimensional inevitability she degenerates into an ‘Inebriate Woman’ inviting the gang-bang in a wrecked car on a deserted lot which presumably kills her. The moral, apparently – those who live by the cock die by the cock.
This Faustian (anti-)morality is a constant. All are corrupt, all deserve whatever they get by first living the laws that ultimately destroy them with such precision. The “Strike” sequence is pivotal, with the workers caught between venal Union Officials creaming private profits from funds, and a scheming management who engineer and benefit from the strike by tax concessions. Comparisons with the Miner’s Strike in Zola’s ‘Germinal’ are revealing, and parallels between the two writers have already been spun by Prof Frank Kermode (editor of the ‘Fontana Modern Masters’ book series), and by Anthony Burgess. But – unlike Zola, for Selby there are no clear-cut issues. There is, and can be no honour. Society is structured on greed-motivation, drawing its life-energies from hatreds and resentments universal on every social level and class. Workers and union are part of the same cancer. And in the light of subsequently uncovered Mafia connections with the American Teamsters Truck-Drivers Union, the degree of corruption seems hardly exaggerated.
It is relentless. Yet beyond images of disgust and hatred, characterisation is frequently shallow. Pompous Harry Black is sexually rejected by the gay Regina. A well-visioned sequence. But the vindictive Union man’s revelation of his own previously unsuspected orientation seems superficial. In Selby’s ‘macho’ world where sexual prowess is the key-stone to self-identity, there’s none of the trauma, disorientation or confusion it could be expected to produce. There’s accuracy in Harry’s rootless lack of identity. His anonymity. And the lure of belonging to such a sub-culture, identification as part of that minority – could be valuable even if, and perhaps particularly if, that new definition is reviled (and hence reinforced) by those outside its milieu. A fragmenting into ethnic, political and sexual sub-worlds can provoke even more powerful internal allegiances. But surely the initial acceptance of ‘gender deviance’ to as unsubtle a man as Harry Black would not come without some unease? A process of unease that Selby ignores.
The psychology is more effectively mapped in an earlier sequence, where the gay Georgette schemes to seduce the straight Vinnie. Here are passages of tactile description that give first intimations of the novel’s lyrical power. In the first section – “Another Day, Another Dollar”, ‘and the cars still passed and the drunks still passed and the sky was clear and bright with stars and moon and a light breeze was blowing and you could hear the tugs in the harbour chugging and the deep OOOO from their whistles floated across the bay and rolled down 2nd Avenue and even the ferry’s mooring winch could be heard, when it was quiet and still, clanging a ferry into the slip…’ Then, in the “Queen Is Dead” (one of two Selby titles later filched by Morrissey for the Smiths – the other being “Pretty Girls Make Graves”) Georgette observes ‘through a rip in the black shade she saw dancing points of grey and soon light would streak the sky and the shadows would soften and dance, and the soft early morning light would seep through the room pushing the shadows from the now darkened corners and the candles soon would be out’. Here are glimpses of what a 2003 issue of ‘The Guardian’ calls ‘the love buried under all this madness, behind the obsession’.
The book is copyrighted 1957, although it would be 1966 before a hardback edition appeared in the UK. Its publication followed by a protracted Old Bailey obscenity trial (November 1967). The verdict initially went against the book, only to be reversed by a subsequent appeal (July 1968). The later Corgi paperback edition is prefaced by Anthony Burgess who enthuses over its worth, while documenting this eccentric legal history. Selby’s words – he infers, are compulsive, singing with the well-observed beat of Brooklyn street-rap – words that cannon and telescope into each other reading phonetically with little regard to punctuation. It should be read in that same easy conversational manner, without stopping to analyse particularly obtuse conglomerations of consonants and nouns, the chances are it will sound right. Passages of conversation are not mapped by quote marks or acknowledgements – the reader works out who said what from context. Further amusing confusion arises from Selby’s insistence on referring to gays by their chosen, rather than their biological gender, leading to paradoxical statements such as ‘her cock’ (but then again, perhaps it’s saying hang-ups about sexual identity are merely symptoms of macro-social orthodoxy?).
Anyway, Selby’s skill makes it work, and the prose power is undeniable. He, after all, is part of the world he describes. His morphine addiction may have been acquired as a result of painkillers administered during a three-and-a-half year hospitalisation for tuberculosis, but it leads him to a prison spell. And it’s only later – in 1969, following the benefits – and problems of literary celebrity, that he’s able to quit both drugs and booze, although he continues to smoke compulsively until a month before he dies from ‘a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease’.
He goes on to write other books. But ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’ is the one that marks him out. And juvenile delinquent Vinnie who provides a casual continuity-thread to its episodic narrative, right into his eventual marriage that makes him part of the ‘Project’. Selby almost manages a grudging affection for this street-punk, while using humour to show how the destructive system he’s part of is self-perpetuating. Yet not once does he attempt to analyse the forces shaping the society he portrays. Without ever stating it, the novel illustrates how raw Capitalism corrupts – and ultimate Capitalism corrupts absolutely to its every visceral level. He never seems to consider that perhaps a system taking ferocious internal competition as its first prerequisite, veneering it with the concepts of voracious expansion and growth for the winners, and the sink-hole ghetto for losers, is pre-programmed to produce something like this. That the Brooklyn nightmare (complete with Harry Black’s ‘Harpies’) is an integral part and parcel of the American Dream.
There can be no Greening for this America. No Exit from this Brooklyn…
HUBERT SELBY JNR:
POET OF DARKNESS
‘LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN’ Novel (Grove Edition 1964 – UK 24th January 1966 through Calder & Boyars Ltd/ Paladin paperback) A book with ‘a studied disdain for the laws of punctuation… not an apostrophe from start to finish.’ Subject of a successful private prosecution for obscenity, brought by Tory MP Sir Cyril Black, at its November 1967 trial Selby himself was too in thrall to drugs and booze to attend, but at its appeal the following year Frank Kermode’s testimony was followed by the editor of the ‘Daily Telegraph’, the future Bishop of Liverpool David Sheppard, and Shirley Williams’ father Professor George Catlin. Movie critic Philip French was the 18th witness. Defence witness Anthony Burgess later admits to not particularly liking the book, but took the stand for the general principle of anti-censorship. Eventually, John Mortimer persuades the Court of Appeal to overturn the initial verdict. Re-issued as a ‘Penguin Classic’ edition in 2011 (£9.99) with new introduction by Irvine Welsh and afterword by Selby himself, placing the novel within biographical context. According to Charlotte Newman’s review its ‘surprising intermittent lyricism making it clear that Selby has some sympathy for his characters… saves what could have been a bitterly depressing book from being truly sadistic’ (‘Observer’ 16 October 2011)
‘LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN’ Movie (Summit Entertainment, 1989 USA, UK premiere 5 January 1990. Guild Video. DVD In-2-Film, 2005. 102 minutes) movie adaptation directed by Uli Edel– billed as ‘The Film That Shocked A Nation’, it features Stephen Lang (as Harry Black), Burt Young (as Big Joe), Peter Dobson (as Vinnie), and Ricki Lake, with a Mark Knopfler score and a Desmond Nakano screenplay. The novel’s extended time-span is compressed down into incidents across a single 1952 summer, and Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh) survives her gang-rape to be comforted by Spook. Selby himself cameos as the Taxi Driver who accidentally runs down transvestite Georgette (played by Alexis Arquette). Before the movie restored his celebrity Selby was reportedly living on welfare in a two-room LA apartment, doing menial jobs in gas stations and gift shops.
‘THE ROOM’ (1971) His second novel, a small-time crook in a remand cell has claustrophobic sadistic fantasies. Reissued as a 1988 Paladin paperback as a double with ‘Song Of The Silent Snow’
‘THE DEMON’ (1976 – UK Marion Boyars 1977) Successful tycoon Harry fulfils his dark side through sexual pick-ups, theft, and eventual murders. “Inside the piston beat of madness, he excels… the writing rises from the sludge to the same sulphurous heights as ‘Last Exit’” says Jim Neville (‘Sunday Times’). A Corgi 1979 edition features an atmospherically tacky nude-girl cover.
‘REQUIEM FOR A DREAM’ (1978 – 1979 UK Marion Boyars) Young hoods Harry & Tyrone fantasise about scoring a pound of heroin and getting rich. There’s a movie adaptation directed by Darren Aronofsky (2000)
‘THE WILLOW TREE’ (1998)
‘SONG OF THE SILENT SNOW’ (1986 – UK Marion Boyars) Fifteen short stories including ‘The Coat’ and ‘Of Whales & Dreams’, “dips into scummy urban terror” says Valentine Cunningham (‘Observer’)
‘WAITING PERIOD’ (2001 – UK 2002) A homicidal loner plots a serial murder spree following an aborted suicide, while waiting for his gun licence to come through.
also ‘FEAR X’ (March 2004) Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s original screenplay collaboration with Selby, featuring John Turturro, James Remar, and Deborah Kara Unger. A trail of random clues to his wife’s car-park murder leads a Wisconsin Mall Security Guard (Turturro) to a Montana hotel where vigilantes punish bent cops.
also ‘OUR FATHERS WHO AREN’T IN HEAVEN’ (Widowspeak label – 1990) an LP of readings by Henry Rollins, Lydia Lunch, Don Bajema, and Selby + there are other audio titles such as ‘TOUGH GUYS TALK DIRTY’ and ‘LIVE IN EUROPE 1989’
Further revised from a feature published in:
‘CHAOTIC ORDER no.18’ (UK – January 2005)
which was a much-revised version of an original feature published in:
‘BOGG no.31’ (UK – March 1976)