Thursday, April 14, 2011


In 1984 I moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. I lived at the corner of Broadway and Wythe, just a block away from the bridge. The neighborhood was just starting to change. Prostitutes roamed the area and burned out cars were littered around the neighborhood. Heroin could be purchased a few blocks away and there was an occasional drug related murder. It was at this time that I noticed a book in the stores called Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. I read it and was hooked. I also read The Room and the collection of stories Song of the Silent Snow. The writings of Selby documented a Brooklyn that was now disappearing and he captured it with a hard, blunt, streetwise prose.

Selby had no formal training but used the raw language of his youth to narrate the bleak and violent world that he had grown up in. He was not concerned with proper grammar, punctuation, or diction although there is a consistency to his work. In a sense he invented his own punctuation. Like Kerouac, he wrote in a fast, spontaneous, stream of consciousness style and replaced apostrophes with forward slashes. He did not use quotation marks and whole paragraphs of dialogue would not have and identified speaker. His prose was stripped down and bare.

His writings exhibited his experience with longshoremen, the homeless, thugs, pimps, transvestites, prostitutes, queers, addicts, and the overall poverty-stricken community. 

Last Exit To Brooklyn started out as a series of short stories and would later be connected into a novel. Tralala, was published in literary journals and examined the violent seedy life and gang rape of a prostitute. The story was controversial and led to an obscenity trial, but the case was later dismissed on appeal.

With the help of Amiri Baraka and Sterling Lord who was Kerouac's agent, Selby finished 6 loosely linked short stories that were published as the novel Last Exit To Brooklyn by Grove Press in 1964. 

The novel was praised by many and derided by others for its detailed depictions of homosexuality and drug addiction, as well as gang rape and other forms of human brutality and cruelty. 

The six sections were (1) Another Day Another Dollar, ( 2) The Queen Is Dead, (3) And Baby Makes Three, (4) Tralala, (5) Strike, and (6) Landsend.

(1) Another Day, Another Dollar - A gang of young Brooklyn hoods hang around an all-night cafe and get into a vicious fight with a group of US Army soldiers.

(2) The Queen Is Dead - Georgette, a transvestite hooker, is thrown out of the family home by her brother and tries to attract the attention of a hood named Vinnie at a benzedrine-driven party.

(3) And Baby Makes Three - An alcoholic father tries to keep good spirits and maintain his family's marriage traditions after his daughter becomes pregnant and marries a motorcycle mechanic.

(4) Tralala - Is about a young prostitute who makes her living propositioning sailors in bars and stealing their money. At the end of the story she is gang-raped after a night of heavy drinking.

(5) Strike - Harry, a machinist in a factory, becomes a union official. A closeted homosexual, he abuses his wife and gets into fights to convince himself that he is a man. He uses the union's money to entertain street punks and buy the company of drag queens.

(6) Landsend -This section presents the intertwined and ordinary day of numerous people in a housing project.

Last Exit To Brooklyn is an intense, powerful, and unconventional and makes for a unique and moving reading experience.

Selby's next novel was The Room which was published in 1971. The book is about a criminally insane man locked up in a cell who reminisces about his past. He is nameless and explores his feelings of impotence, hatred and rage, and fantasies of revenge.

The Demon (1976) is about the life of Harry White who has a good marriage and a good job, but is haunted by a need for lust and retribution and chronicles how his life evolves into a climax of apocalyptic violence. 

Requiem For A Dream (1978) concerns four Brooklynites whose lives spiral out of control as they succumb to their addictions. Harry and Marion are in love and Tyrone is their friend. Sara is Harry's lonely, widowed mother. Sara's dream is to be on TV and when a phone call from a casting company gets her hopes up, she starts bingeing on diet pills to lose weight. She becomes addicted and delirious, and ends up in the hospital undergoing shock therapy. Harry, Marion, and Tyrone are heroin addicts and decide to make money by buying some uncut product and selling it. Harry and Ty end up in jail, and Marion, now alone takes a hellish path into prostitution to pay for her habit. 

Song of the Silent Snow (1986) is a collection of 15 stories that include Selby's clipped street vernacular and poetic descriptions and is probably his most compassionate book about an uncaring world.

There were also two good films made of Selby's work. 

Last Exit to Brooklyn was made in 1989 by Uli Edel and stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tralala, Stephen Lang as Harry Black in Strike, and Alexis Arquette as the tragic transvestite Georgette. 

Requiem For A Dream is directed by Darren Aronofsky and stars Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans. The film has an interesting soundtrack and uses innovative camera work and editing to depict the points of view of the characters who are drug addicts.

The documentary film HUBERT SELBY JR: It/ll Be Better Tormorrow came out in 2005 and is a good overview of Selby's life and work.

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