Why you should care

Because they don’t make tough guy fiction like they used to.

Hubert Selby Jr. may not be a household name (and never was), and it’s unlikely that you’ll find him on a list of the greatest 20th century American writers. But if one of the hallmarks of the “Great American Novel,” from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, is its penetrating vision of the people and nation that formed it, then Selby belongs in the conversation.

Selby’s portraits of a broken society are merely a reflection of the broken body in which he was forced to live.

In the same way that The Great Gatsby offers up an unyielding vision of America’s high-flying elite, Selby’s masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn, is a searing rendition of the dark underbelly of a nation whose have-nots are fighting not just for power but for survival.

In many ways, Selby’s portraits of a broken society are merely a reflection of the broken body in which he was forced to live. Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Selby left school at age 15 to become a merchant sailor. A few years later he was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis and given a year to live. To his doctors’ great surprise, however, after an experimental drug treatment and operations that removed 11 ribs and half of one lung, Selby outlived his prognosis and in fact lived to see his 75th year.

But Selby endured chronic pain for the rest of his life, often relying on painkillers and heroin to relieve the agony. He may have beat the tuberculosis, but he was bed-ridden, unable to work and frequently hospitalized for the better part of 10 years.

Encouraged by a childhood friend, the writer Gilbert Sorrentino, Selby — who could barely read — decided, “I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.” Many if not most writers spend decades honing their craft, but Selby’s late start and lack of formal training proved to be an advantage in his portrayals of the bleak and violent world around him. The threat of death is ever-looming in his work — a nightmarish fear that sprang directly from the author’s own existence.

The novel broke like a vial of dope on a Brooklyn pavement, some readers crowding round to soak up the vital dynamism of the prose, others barely able to hide their disgust.

For Selby, writing was a means by which death could be postponed, the very act of putting pen to paper being reason enough to keep on living. He published his first novel, Last Exist to Brooklyn, in 1964 when he was 36, and it is the one for which he is best remembered.

The novel broke like a vial of dope on a Brooklyn pavement, some readers crowding round to soak up the vital dynamism of the prose, others barely able to hide their disgust. Beat poet and spokesman for the disaffected Allen Ginsberg was among the loudest voices of praise, describing the book as “a rusty hellish bombshell that should explode all over America and still be read in a hundred years.”

The novel’s unflinching depiction of drug use, prostitution, gang rape, homosexuality, transvestitism and domestic violence soon caught the attention of the authorities, and it was banned under the Obscene Publications Act until 1968.

After a separate brush with the law, Selby finally kicked his heroin dependency around the same time, and for the rest of his life used neither drugs nor alcohol, even refusing morphine on his deathbed. But in his writing, Selby never shied away from controversial topics, such as heroin addiction in Requiem For a Dream and delusional psychosis in The Room.

But more than subject matter it’s Selby’s style that makes him an enduring writer. For example, his mastery of voice allows him to reject formal notions of dialogue, instead blending the characters’ words into the language of the narrative. By clearly differentiating characters not simply by their accents but by their language patterns, it is possible to distinguish the source of speech even in the hazy confusion of his prose.

Here, in the opening to arguably the most famous chapter in Last Exist to Brooklyn, Selby introduces us to the prostitute Tralala and we are drawn into the raw world of his protagonists:

”Tralala was 15 the first time she was laid. There was no real passion. Just diversion. She hungout in the Greeks with the other neighborhood kids. Nothin to do. Sit and talk. Listen to the jukebox. Drink coffee. Bum cigarettes. Everything a drag. She said yes. In the park. 3 or 4 couples finding their own tree and grass. Actually she didn’t say yes. She said nothing.”

Selby chose the underbelly of society as his canvas, and after Last Exit to Brooklyn’s publication in 1964, it was no longer possible to ignore it as part of American life. The novel offers the reader a vision of a world that is both strange and yet familiar, and it deserves to be counted among the Great American Novels of the 20th century owing to its unflinching gaze into the hearts of the forgotten.

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