Selby, Hubert, Jr.
Selby, Hubert, Jr. 1928-
American short story writer and novelist.
A controversial writer of ultrarealistic fiction, Selby gained prominence in 1964 with the publication of his first collection of short stories, Last Exit to Brooklyn. While many critics praise Selby's unique narrative style and unflinching realism as significant contributions to the short story form, the shocking accounts of life on the streets of Brooklyn push the limits of public tolerance for violence and obscenity. In stories populated by prostitutes, drug-abusers, transvestites, gang members, and permanently marginalized members of society, Selby purposely retains a neutral tone, sometimes drawing comparisons to satirical-moralist writers such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Nonetheless Selby conveys compassion for the hopeless characters of his horrific stories that is all-the-more compelling for its lack of sentimentality.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Selby dropped out of high school at age fifteen to join the merchant marine. While in Germany in 1946, he was diagnosed with severe tuberculosis and was sent back to Brooklyn where he remained hospitalized until 1950. When Selby was finally released from the hospital he became immersed in the hapless, drug-ridden culture of the street—of which he eventually became more of an observer than a participant. Around the same time, Selby befriended a group of aspiring writers from Brooklyn and Greenwich Village and became interested in literature and writing. With the support and encouragement of a friend, writer Gilbert Sorrentino, Selby worked to develop his writing skills. In 1956, his first short story, the harsh, tragic "The Queen Is Dead," was published in the Black Mountain Review. But it was the 1964 publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn, and the attendant controversy surrounding its graphic language and sexually explicit subject matter that put Selby squarely in the public eye. The author fought with drug and alcohol addiction during the last half of the sixties, finally returning again to writing around 1969 and completing his novel The Room shortly thereafter. Selby has published two other novels and a collection of short stories since 1971. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Selby's most famous book, Last Exit to Brooklyn, also stands as his most critically acclaimed. The six tales of street life in Brooklyn outline an unbelievably brutal world. "Tralala," explicitly details a vicious gang rape, and "Strike," considered by many commentators to be Selby's most accomplished work, tells the story of a man who attempts to have sex with a young boy and is later crucified by a street gang in retaliation. Last Exit was shocking enough in its time to cause a stir in both the literary world and in the courts. The collection was brought to trial on obscenity charges in the United States and England, and many commentators were provoked to defend or denounce the book's artistic merits. Selby's subsequent books, three novels and a collection of short stories, have failed to gather as much attention from the public. Published in 1971, Selby's second book The Room is a violent, streamof-conscious narrative from the mind of an incarcerated criminal. While this novel was well received by critics, it failed to achieve the popular success of Last Exit. In 1986, Selby returned to the form that launched his career with a collection of short stories, Song of the Silent Snow.
Much of the early criticism of Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn revolves around the appropriateness of the book's content. Attacked as pornography and celebrated for its realism, Last Exit has received rather polar critical responses. Many critics agree, however, that Selby's creative prose is often obscured by the shocking nature of his stories. His experimental narrative style and straightforward approach to his subject matter are generally considered innovative and successful. Others point to Selby's effective use of metaphor within a realistic context to imbue frightening stories of human hatred and brutality with a spiritual undertone. Selby uses dispassionate, unflinching accounts of violence and despair to bring about a full expression of human pain. While he has written relatively few short stories, his achievements in style and his forthright presentation of his particular subject matter make him an important contributor to the short story form.
SOURCE: "Life in Four Letters," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLVII, No. 45, November 7, 1964, pp. 23-4.
[Hicks was an American literary critic whose famous study The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War (1933) established him as the foremost advocate of Marxist critical thought in Depression-era America. Throughout the 1930s he argued for a more socially engaged brand of literature but after 1939 sharply denounced communist ideology and adopted a less ideological posture in critical matters. In the review below, Hicks defends Selby's use of profanity in Last Exit to Brooklyn as an effective tool in drawing an accurate and...
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SOURCE: "Beyond Revulsion," in The New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1964, p. 67.
[Fremont-Smith is an American critic who has worked for the New York Times, Saturday Review, and Village Voice. In the following review, he contends that although Last Exit to Brooklyn is a powerful and evocative work, its brutal and grotesque realism make it difficult for the average reader to stomach.]
This is a brutal book—shocking, exhausting, depressing. At first thumb-through, it is simply repulsive, "Grove Press's extra special dirty book for fall," as Time called it. Yet the book is not that easily dismissable: the profound depression it...
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SOURCE: "The Stillborn America," in The Nation, New York Vol. 199, No. 18, December 7, 1964, pp. 440-42.
[Schott is an American editor and critic. In the following review, he suggests that Last Exit to Brooklyn is a relevant and shocking vision of urban life that nonetheless would have benefited from an exploration of love's presence in the world, not just its absence.]
Last Exit to Brooklyn drops like a sledge hammer. Emotionally beaten, one leaves it a different person—slightly changed, educated by pain, as Goethe said. The transfer of suffering has been made. One has gone to bed regretting life, wishing Hubert Selby's stories were not truth, and...
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SOURCE: "The Art of Hubert Selby," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. I, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 335-46.
[An early supporter and long-time friend of Selby's, Sorrentino is an American poet and experimental novelist highly regarded by critics for his innovative fiction that uses nontraditional structures to help convey its meaning. During the 1960s, Sorrentino wrote and served various editorial roles for the journal Kulchur, which, inspired by the Beats, promoted the work of writers breaking from the traditional academic forms of poetry and fiction. In the following essay, originally published in Kulchur in 1964, Sorrentino praises Selby's technical and artistic...
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SOURCE: "The In Way Out," in Partisan Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Spring, 1965, pp. 299-303.
[In the following review, Donadío faults Last Exit to Brooklyn as unrealistic, uninteresting, and unartistic.]
The locale of Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn is Red Hook, the dock and factory district lying roughly south and west of the Gowanus Expressway approach to the Battery Tunnel; its inhabitants range from the murderous and monstrous to the beaten-down and vague. In their collapsing lives, the author finds what appear to be subjects; but while Mr. Selby may be good at capturing the eccentricities of Brooklyn speech, which he reproduces as...
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SOURCE: "The Sin of Pride and Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1969, pp. 35-42.
[In the essay below, Peavy asserts that narcissistic pride, more than circumstance, leads the primary characters of Last Exit to Brooklyn to their tragic ends.]
Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn has been attacked as immoral and even pornographic. After a series of trials in England, the book was officially suppressed. Last Exit to Brooklyn has also been banned in Italy, and has been the subject of controversy in the United States. The characters in Selby's stories are homosexuals, prostitutes, dope...
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SOURCE: "Psychic Vengeance in Last Exit to Brooklyn," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, 1974, pp. 153-66.
[Below, Wertime examines the role of "retributive justice " in Last Exit to Brooklyn and suggests that the main characters in the book actually seek out their own punishments in an effort to resolve psychological conflicts.]
When a fictional work is topical either because of the information it imparts to the reader, or by virtue of the issues which it takes as its province, it risks being read as a merely documentary effort or as an act of social comment—and its artistic intent, accordingly, runs the danger of misconstrual. Hubert...
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SOURCE: A review of Song of the Silent Snow, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 316-17.
[Below, Byrne offers a positive assessment of Song of the Silent Snow.]
It should come as no surprise to his admirers that Hubert Selby, Jr., began his career as a short-story writer. Even his acknowledged masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn, leaves its readers with strong impressions of unforgettable characters who stand alone and step outside, as it were, the five sections and Coda that make up that seminal work: Tralala, Georgette, Vinnie, Tommy, Tony, Harry Black and the others. For this reason, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a...
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SOURCE: "Examining the Disease: An Interview with Hubert Selby, Jr.," in The Literary Review, Fairleigh Dickenson University, Vol. 35, No. 2, Winter, 1992, pp. 288-302.
[The following is an in-depth discussion between Vorda and Selby, concerning Selby's works—particularly Last Exit to Brooklyn—as well as his style and intent.]
(The entire section is 7470 words.)
O'Dair, Barbara. "Desperate Living: The Resurrection of Hubert Selby." Village Voice 33 (6 September 1988): 53-5.
Profiles Selby's life and career, including excerpts from Selby's works and an interview with the author.
Armarius. "The Slough of Despond." North American Review n.s. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1965): 51.
Review of Last Exit to Brooklyn praising Selby's ability to evoke pity for the lost people of all cities.
Ciardi, John. "Last Exit to Nowhere." Saturday Review 48 (3 April 1965): 12.
Maintains that Last Exit to Brooklyn...
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Selby, Hubert, Jr. (Vol. 1)
Selby, Hubert, Jr. 1928–
American writer of fiction, author of Last Exit to Brooklyn. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn has been attacked as immoral and even pornographic. After a series of trials in England, the book was officially suppressed. Last Exit to Brooklyn has also been banned in Italy, and has been the subject of controversy in the United States. The characters in Selby's stories are homosexuals, prostitutes, dope addicts, and hoodlums, and his plots illustrate the degenerate, depraved, and doomed existence they live. Selby's realistic style is as objectionable to many readers as the actions he describes. Nevertheless, Selby is not a salacious or pornographic writer; he belongs to the tradition of the religious-moralist-satirist that includes Swift and Pope and which began with the medieval preachers who denounced lechery and gluttony by presenting repulsive portraits of the sins of the flesh. Selby's description of an unlovely and unloving humanity is expressed in the only language appropriate to both his aesthetic and moral intentions.
Selby has an almost obsessive concern with sin—not with the fact that it exists, but that it has become, as he says, "an ambiguous thing in our society."…
Selby's vision is apocalyptic, and the intensity of this vision accounts for the violence of his language and the sordidness of his descriptions. Selby is convinced that we learn only through emotional experience….
The sin most frequently attacked by Selby in Last Exit to Brooklyn is pride…. In these stories, pride brings about total degradation and death to the protagonists.
Charles D. Peavy, "The Sin of Pride and Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 3, 1969, pp. 35-42.
Hubert Selby has a gift for capturing the rage that explodes within every American city. No other American writer has conveyed so brilliantly the fierce, primal competitions of the street, or of the way living can shrink to hating. Selby's first book, Last Exit to Brooklyn, was a volatile vision of the seething, raging life of Brooklyn's back alleys, of workers and thieves who brawl in gutters and bars, people for whom life is an endless down. As Selby portrayed it, Brooklyn was not a place so much as it was a nightmare in which manhood could be won only through one man's tormenting another. The relentless pursuit of machismo through all the byways of cruelty, the fear of failure that drives men into deeper and deeper vileness are Selby's most gripping preoccupations. For Selby is a clinician of male violence, an explorer of those recesses of consciousness where the question of sexual identity is always in doubt. The Room is about the same nexus of sexual chaos and cruelty that gave Last Exit to Brooklyn its remarkable force….
Selby's genius is for writing of the unlovable "with love" and with a strength and purity of style that make his work one of the most remarkable achievements in current literature. From human dregs, from the unremittingly tormented, he extracts the very essence of that free-floating anger that hangs like a pall over every American city…. Selby is the poet of our decline, a writer who has an unerring instinct for honing our collapse into novels as glittering and as cutting as pure, black, jagged glass.
Josephine Hendin, in Saturday Review, December 11, 1971, p. 37.
Selby, Hubert, Jr. (Vol. 2)
Selby, Hubert, Jr. 1928–
American writer of fiction, author of Last Exit to Brooklyn. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
Hubert Selby's The Room is very obscene, in inventive as well as boring ways, and it too will attract readers who really shouldn't be there. Here point of view is all, as Selby ransacks the paranoid mind of a prisoner waiting to be tried, apparently on a minor charge. I say "apparently" because this is one of those novels that accord merely "objective" details very little status. The prisoner fantasizes endlessly….
And Selby, who in Last Exit to Brooklyn so impressively showed his power to imagine psychosexual extremity and the lurid despairs inside seemingly commonplace souls, gives this prisoner plenty to think about, as he dreams up hideous vengeances on cops, women, and the other authority figures of his humiliating history.
But it's terribly difficult to render, from inside, dull and resourceless minds like this one. The trick is not to suggest that such people really are richly aware and sensitive when you get to know them, down there beneath the impassive, inarticulate surface. Few writers even come close—offhand I think only of Defoe, Flaubert, and Joyce, which is select company. Selby is a conscientious craftsman—the raw immediacy of Last Exit was sustained by a remarkable sense of structure and timing. But, like everyone else, he's no Joyce, and The Room falls short of its ambitions….
The Room is powerful and disturbing even so, but the boundaries of Selby's art and moral vision are too large to be filled up by a single commonplace mind, psychopathic or not.
Thomas R. Edwards, "The Real Thing," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), March 9, 1972, pp. 19-20.
Hubert Selby, you cannot fail to recall, wrote a tremendous, multi-facet book named Last Exit to Brooklyn. As you will recall with greater clarity still, that book was unsuccessfully prosecuted by some gaga weirdos whose idea of the contemporary novel begins with Jean Plaidy and ends with Penelope Mortimer (bless their nylons)….
However, despite all the rape, bestiality, brutal sadism, mutilations and manglings, no one could read this novel [The Room, Selby's second book] without knowing that they have been through a strange and harrowing trip of unimaginable pathos. Not despite the untempered psychotic violence of the work but because of it….
Although Selby's writing assumes many textures, from sequential exposition to raging curses relentlessly smeared on with a palette knife, the book itself is both organic and indivisible. It is considerably more than its parts. It is a soul stripped bare, flinching and wincing and screaming and bleeding and struggling for breath. Scarcely a let-up, with very few moments of even recollected delight. Not a happy book but an unavoidable one. Maybe even a great one.
Duncan Fallowell, "A Soul Stripped Bare," in Books and Bookmen, May, 1972, pp. 54-5.
Selby, Hubert, Jr. (Vol. 4)
Selby, Hubert, Jr. 1928–
Selby is a controversial American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
Criticism of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn has been generally hostile. The book is usually mentioned in passing as an example of corruption and/or decay in modern literature and/or society. Time magazine even went so far as to assert, in its review, that anyone who gave the book a good notice would obviously be in the employ of Grove Press. I liked Last Exit to Brooklyn, but since I cannot produce any notarized affidavits certifying my independence of the publisher's payroll, the reader will have to be content merely with my most emphatic denial of any such relationship….
In all the furor over Selby's book as a perhaps appropriate victim of censorship, little progress has been made in evaluating it in terms of literary criteria. Could it be that Selby seems so dangerous precisely because he is an effective and persuasive writer of prose fiction?
Before answering this question in detail we should determine for ourselves exactly what the intention of the book is. The title provides us with a clue. The stories are not about Brooklyn but about the last exit to Brooklyn. Selby is making no claim to encyclopedic sociological thoroughness in laying before us the hoodlums, queers, and whores of city-planned slums. He presents us with an exit, a point of departure, a specific view which can be tested only in terms of its inner viability, its effectiveness in dominating the imagination with its own standards of reality….
The only appropriate question is, does Selby's Brooklyn work?
It does not work in all the details, a fact which separates Selby as a good writer from the first-raters. His ear for language is often quite inept ("did yadig" for "didya dig"), and his insistence upon including gratuitous sexual episodes to liven up quiet movements (as in "Strike") indicates a lack of confidence. Perhaps he is making capital out of the well-known fact that a censored book is an automatic bestseller in this country. In any case, his control over the world of his stories is not uniformly sound; given his subject-matter, the slip from the pathetic to the bathetic is all too easy.
In general, however, Selby presents us with a compelling vision. It is difficult to choose any one story to illustrate this, because the whole collection is interdependent. The first story, for example, may frighten many readers away because it is an apparently senseless presentation of violence and brutality. This story contains, however, the most radical expression of all the principles which inform the rest of the book. It is told from the point of view of a group, an uneasy grammatical construction in our singular-oriented language. This group functions under a set of rules which will be alien to most readers. The cohesive principle is kicks, that vague word which elbows its way into our consciousness usually by way of the tabloids. The word is not vague when Selby is through. Kicks is anything that counteracts the forces that bring the members of the group into individual self-consciousness: boredom, lack of money, lack of purpose….
Critics are wrong to dismiss Selby on the grounds that this picture is "tasteless" or "obscene." But they are right if they recognize that Selby has presented only part of the picture, a modern Inferno, if you will. Comparisons with Dante are likely to be fruitless, but we have a right to hope, if not expect, that Selby will see fit to exercise his talents in the more difficult direction of writing about those people in Brooklyn he loves, not pities.
W. J. T. Mitchell, in Studies in Short Fiction, Fall, 1965, pp. 77-8.
What Selby is saying [in "The Room"] is that in the lives of the powerless nothing occurs. Or rather everything occurs but to no effect. Their debasement and triumph are all fiction. Day-dreaming. Nothing is changed by their lives. Whether they live or die, suffer or not, are good or evil means nothing. For, being impotent, they are outside history. They are casualties numbered on a list and forgotten….
[The novel] is a nightmare and pain. It is an exquisite, meticulous examination of the curious piteous lust between oppressor and oppressed. It documents the sexual basis of power and criminality. As a work of the imagination, I think it assures Hubert Selby's place in the first rank of American novelists…. In "The Room" and "Last Exit to Brooklyn" Selby has created characters with a concreteness, force and individuality seldom found in American fiction. And yet they are eminently American characters. They could exist nowhere else. That is why to understand Selby's work is to understand the anguish of America….
Selby's genius is that he compels us to feel. And that is a marvelous thing. Think of it: a writer has come along and created a novel which sensitizes us to the pain of others, a novel profoundly concerned, perhaps too deeply, with America and yet a novel that refuses to sentimentalize the American experience. "The Room" is a great, moral book.
Dotson Rader, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 12, 1971, pp. 5, 28-9.
"This book is dedicated,/with love,/to the thousands/who remain nameless/and know." The dedication page of Hubert Selby's new novel [The Room] suggests that—as in the fated and, later, fêted Last Exit to Brooklyn—the author's primary role is that of social critic. The criminals, in Last Exit, were not the mindless sadists it so often depicted so much as those who ran the society which gave rise to such people: it was not the savage sex that was nauseating, but the social conditions that fostered it. That, in any case, would seem to have been the thesis; and if Mr. Selby was out to turn the average stomach with Last Exit, then he probably succeeded, though whether he managed at the same time to stir the average conscience is quite another matter.
In The Room, the range is narrowed a little. The malign influence depicted here is still, by implication, society at large, but it is personified by the most obvious example of its repressive influence: the police.
"Pig Sticking," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), February 25, 1972, p. 209.
[Selby's novel] The Room [is] his portrait of a festering mind…. From human dregs, from the unremittingly tormented, Selby extracts the very odor of rage, the essence of that free-floating anger that lies like a pall over all of us….
His preoccupations are the relentless pursuit of machismo through all the ways of cruelty, the fear of failure and worthlessness that drives men into deeper and deeper vileness. Selby is a clinician of male violence, dissecting straight to the center of sexual chaos and cruelty….
Where Last Exit to Brooklyn focused on the social scene of violence, from brawls to sexual infighting, The Room is the story of one mind riveted on fury. Sadism is the only means of survival for Selby's nameless hero, who festers in prison as he awaits trial for an unnamed crime….
This is Selby's vision of a culture's bedrock psyche, a portrait of an American mind gone the limit in its acceptance of cruelty as life's only fixed principle. Selby perceives pain, whether inflicted or felt, as the basic bond between people. If he does not gloat over the cruelty he describes, Selby nevertheless sees nothing else, nothing but the terror of those dismal, festering characters who spring from his imagination so fully formed in their vileness. He does write of them with love, with an energy and purity of style that is absolute in its insistence on your glimmer of recognition and assent: is their life yours? Whether it is or not, reading Selby is like being mugged.
Josephine Hendin, "Angries: S-M as a Literary Style," in Harper's (copyright © 1974, by Harper's Magazine, Inc.; reprinted from the February, 1974 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission), February, 1974, pp. 87-93.
Selby, Hubert, Jr. (Vol. 8)
Selby, Hubert, Jr. 1928–
Selby is an American novelist whose explicit portrayals of sex and violence in Last Exit to Brooklyn catapulted him to fame, controversy, and, in several areas, censorship. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
It was only a few years ago that Lady Chatterley's Lover unexpurgated and Tropic of Cancer were the bold and shocking books. I can't imagine that either work would cause much of a stir today. (p. 165)
Indeed, any kind of writing that describes straight sexuality with a feeling of pleasurable excitement has begun to seem outdated and rear-guard. The new tack that the sexual revolution has taken, at least in literature, or that so-called experimental writing has taken with regard to sex, is in the direction of perversion, particularly homosexuality, whether in subject matter or in vision. Rather than banning Fanny Hill, the authorities should consider subsidizing it as a contribution to the maintenance of normal animal nature in difficult times.
In a recent essay in Partisan Review, Susan Sontag suggests that two minority groups are making the only significant contributions to contemporary culture: the Jews, who impart moral seriousness, and the homosexuals, who impart aesthetic style and playfulness. But it seems to me the homosexual imagination is having a more decisive effect in defining the moral as well as the aesthetic character of the age since its view of human nature seems much more arresting and convincing to our sensation-seeking, anxious, and cynical eyes than does the old-fashioned earnest humanism of Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud. The darkest (deepest) truths about drug addiction come from William Burroughs, about Negro-white relations from Genet and Baldwin, about modern marriage from Albee and Tennessee Williams, about the disaffected young from Allen Ginsberg.
The latest extension of this perspective is provided by Hubert Selby, Jr., who carries it into the violent slums around the Brooklyn waterfront, where he casts a particularly lurid light upon juvenile delinquency, the homosexuality of everyday life, the degeneration of the family in public housing projects, the corruption of the unions, and, in general, upon the vicious, obscene, and cold-hearted propensities of modern man, not to mention modern woman.
Only two of the six stories in Last Exit to Brooklyn deal with inversion as such…. Selby's other vignettes of the waterfront slums, however, are no less informed by the same loving and loathing fascination with "rough trade," or by other variants of sado-masochistic fantasy. (pp. 166-67)
It takes a genuine compulsion … to yield up one's imagination so completely to the images and sensations of sadism, to identify so thoroughly by one's language with the mentality of the action. (p. 167)
Selby's best single piece of writing is the story of Tralala, a teen-age psychopath whose dumb and constant rage sweeps her from one gutter to another, from delinquency to prostitution and eventually into dereliction and destruction. (p. 168)
Tralala is Selby's ideal character. She has none of the normal emotions that would offer opposition, contradiction, even ambiguity to the simple, destructive point he wants to make with her. Otherwise, Selby's characters soon begin to reveal less of their lives than of the narrow, habitual grooves in which their author's sensibility runs, just as the line of action almost invariably moves toward still another explosion of violence…. The sentimentality of [some] passages is, of course, merely the reverse of the crude, tough tone that surrounds them and reinforces the awareness of how little range there is of thought and art in these stories, of how dependent Selby is upon the intense slant and twist of his emotions for his perspective.
The same is true of his ability to create. The world that exists apart from his own obsessions is conceived by a callow, banal, pointless loathing. (pp. 168-69)
Selby apparently sees some profound religious truth in all of this, for he prefaces each of the stories with a quotation from the Old Testament. None of them is apt: the one for "Tralala" comes from the "Song of Songs," of all things. I imagine that Selby wishes us to believe that he is describing a modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah, which of course he is, though from the point of view of a Sodomite…. [Still] it's a very false note. Nihilism is Selby's single true love, and one of the Grove Press crowd—Seymour Krim, LeRoi Jones, Terry Southern, John Rechy, etc.—who tell us how beautiful and true Selby is should tell him that if you're going to be like a nihilist, you can't work the religious shuck as well. (pp. 169-70)
Theodore Solotaroff, "Hubert Selby's Kicks" (1964), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties (copyright © 1964, 1970 by Theodore Solotaroff; reprinted by permission of The Washington Post), Atheneum, 1970, pp. 165-70.
I believe that [the disturbing sort of power generated by the most violent stories in Last Exit to Brooklyn] is deceptively intricate in nature. It results to my mind from Selby's ambivalent manner of handling retributive justice, an ambivalence of so delicate a psychological composition that its effect is deeply felt but not readily noticed, not easily transcribed into critical terminology. The language of psychology might be of some use, and I will draw on it to help me—help and nothing more, I hope. My overall intention is to appreciate Selby's novel for its special artistic merits, not to reduce it to the status of a clinical example. I wish to focus primarily on a pair of interconnected stories, "Another Day Another Dollar," and the novel's longest and most impressive story, "Strike." Both of these stories involve an important group of characters whom I refer to collectively as the "psychic avengers." My discussion of these characters and the actions they take part in will lead me to some comments about the shape of the entire novel, and this, in turn, will entail some tentative efforts to place Last Exit in a larger critical context. These latter efforts will be useful, I believe, in clarifying some of the problems that pertain to point of view.
Retributive justice, at its extreme, engenders a primitive satisfaction: primitive in its unabashed complacency towards violence, primitive in its sensing a serious social endangerment, and primitive in regarding the act of punishment as a manifest social necessity. Usually in literature such justice is more modest, and usually it appears in a less pure form, modified by irony, ambiguity or whatever. Modified and complicated—but not denied by any means. Narrative closures since time immemorial have been making this self-evident: the fruits of a conflict ended are resolution and repose, which allow the regenerative mechanisms to take up their work. Even in the most complex of literary works, unresolved problems and lingering uncertainties will rest upon and be "felt" against the bedrock of finality that is discovered underfoot when the central conflict ends.
When, inversely, a central conflict persists, our mental tension is sustained and we are denied the satisfactions peculiar to a so-called "just" ending. It is safe I think to say that this happens only rarely by deliberate design, even in so-called experimental fiction. But an artist may impose upon his work some resolution that we cannot accept for one reason or another: it may strike us as simple-minded, or—and this is more likely—it may rest on a scheme of values which we cannot embrace. Our repudiation might lead us to deny the work's artistry; or we might, on the other hand, have recourse to a vantage-point that allows for our disagreements (and hence our uneasiness) without in the same breath robbing us of our appreciation entirely. Most worthy narratives involve us in this process: they are tension-sustaining, exciting; they catch us between the familiar and the entirely unexpected. It can be very disturbing, however, when we cannot quite locate the source of our uneasiness, that nexus of values which we intuitively reject.
This, roughly speaking, is what happens in Last Exit to Brooklyn. In the triad of violent stories that culminates with "Strike," Selby gradually alters the terms in which we view his sequence of victims with the effect that by the end we find our responses divided: against the ostensible injustice of the punishment of each victim there stands a growing subliminal feeling that the punishment has been just. And this division in our sympathies causes us discomfort because we are forced, simultaneously, and without a clear awareness of it, to assume moral stances which contradict each other; this in addition to enduring the violence of the stories, which is distressing in its own right. If then, for direction, we turn to the author's viewpoint, we find ourselves further baffled: Selby seems at once obsessively involved in and ironically detached from the world which he is creating. He eschews such common forms of authorial politeness as narrative indirection and balanced characterization; he runs dialogue, action, his characters' mental workings into a harsh cacophonous pattern that is idiomatic in its typography, syntax and paragraphing. Last Exit is hectic with energy; it moves at eye-blearing speed, and our endurance and our powers of discrimination are taxed. Insofar as a writer's habits have any "point," Selby seems to be saying to us, Modern life does that. But this can hardly stand as an adequate summary of Selby's Weltanschauung, and it remains to be seen from the stories themselves just what his vision of modern man entails. (pp. 153-55)
[The] three stories, taken together, add up to more than a sum of parts. "Analogical probability" is a useful term for this effect: the likenesses which interconnect "Another Day Another Dollar," "Tralala" and "Strike" create a general coloration which somewhat dissolves the boundaries between the separate pieces, and this allows them to become at least to some extent interchangeable. "Strike," psychologically speaking is the most disturbing of these stories…. It generates in us the most stressing ambivalence; Selby himself, moreover, seems unsure where he stands at a very critical moment.
The central concerns in "Strike," I believe, are also central in American culture generally—which may explain in part the tremendous power the story possesses. The terror of being one of an undifferentiated mass; the primacy of conflict and competition in human relationships; the essential fear of sex, of vulnerability and openness—these are the driving forces at work in Harry Black's life. (p. 157)
Harry's sense of deficiency derives from an unreal notion of what he ought to be instead of what he actually is. His conscience has him caught, then, in a double bind: on the one hand it condemns him as being hopelessly inadequate, and on the other hand it orders him to assume, in compensation, an identity which is beyond the power of any man to achieve. This idealized self-image … robs him as he pursues it of what little strength he actually does have. In analytical terminology, Harry Black has an extremely weak ego, a pathologically amorphous and unbounded center that affords him little coherency, effectiveness or free choice, so wholly has he abdicated his real potentialities in his desperate bid to realize a Faustian superimage or ego ideal. (pp. 160-61)
Harry seeks friends, but actually gets enemies. The self, by overreaching, undermines its best interests and ironically situates itself in a position of needless jeopardy. Another way of putting it is to say that the tyrranical superego functions within the psyche as a kind of internal police force—a secret police force, even. Such police are feared and hated, but they are accepted as a necessity in that little state of man in which the citizens are unruly. Unruliness in Harry, as indeed in most psychotics, takes the form of sexual longings—longings that prima facie are regarded as destructive. It is also typical of such secret police that they will tempt an individual into the commission of a crime and then arrest and punish him for it. The boys from the Greeks in effect do this with Harry. They are the ones who first introduce him to homosexual pleasures; they are also the ones who spring the trap when the bait is taken. The hunt, once again, is undertaken for the sport of it, and concludes with a victory celebration which follows the kill. This is the pattern at work in "Another Day Another Dollar," and also in slightly altered form in "Tralala." Its psychological implications are worth pointing up: the punishment, it turns out, does not serve any authentic social necessity, and the ministers of punishment have engaged in a cruel ruse, a sadistic disguising; the "police" reveal themselves as being merely vicious sportsmen. Sex is not destructive to the endopsychic "society" except in perversion, and even then ruination is but a pretense to cure. (p. 161)
I would like to turn my attention now to the very end of "Strike" and to the question of the narrative perspective which governs all of Last Exit to Brooklyn…. It is certainly a relentless piece of fictional closure, and it leaves the reader sufficiently stunned not to want to go poking, at least not immediately, amid the aesthetic implications. The literary referents in the full text of this scene,—Oedipus and Gloucester, Christ on Golgotha, Ahab on his whale—are evident enough not to be difficult to utilize, and Selby manages not to let them get in his way. The reader will also notice the conjunction of the blinding and the drowning motifs, and the echoes of the nightmare: Harry addressing himself as "you"; his hearing his own voice loud in his head; the similarities also in the kinds of torment he endures.
But what interests me most is that sentence about the moon ["The moon neither noticed nor ignored Harry as he lay at the foot of the billboard, but continued on its unalterable journey."] I cannot quite understand what Selby intends it to do to the reader. Possibly he sees it as an aptly grim reminder that the backdrop against which all human action plays is the néant, the void. "All is vanity, saith the preacher." But I cannot help feeling strongly that the statement is both pointless and nonsequiturial. Its first effect, to my mind, is to diminish the power of Harry's condition by reducing it to an error, an egocentric folly. But we don't need a reminder that Harry is in error; that is plentifully self-evident, and even if we are caught up in his psychosis momentarily, our involvement won't hurt us. Does Selby himself, one wonders, feel some uneasiness at the moment, some need to establish a distance between himself here and Harry? It would seem that he does. Why else would he break stride? And why bother reminding us that the cosmos is neutral? L'indifférence, Proust tells us, est la forme permanente de la cruauté. Human cruelty, certainly, has been an issue in the story, but that the cosmos is intentionless is quite beside the point. (pp. 163-64)
Just where does Selby stand? I know of few novels in which the answer is so elusive. The epigraphs from the Bible seem consistent in their purpose—to establish a general tenor of moral dissatisfaction with the way people act (and more superficially to discourage the reader's inclination to see the work as pornography; Selby was doubtless clear-eyed in foreseeing this problem). Yet however dissatisfied he might be with human behavior, Selby is obviously interested in and compassionate toward man's suffering. What elicits our sympathy, if not his invention? Besides, some ironic detachment is an absolute requirement if one is to write well at all, much less give one's writing the kind of intricate formal shape which characterizes Last Exit.
What Selby possibly does not control are those unnervingly mixed responses which his narrative generates and the endopsychic dimensions which have been my main concern. Just why it is that for so many readers Last Exit to Brooklyn is an unbearable experience is a complicated matter, a matter that has to do with levels of psychic tolerance in individual readers and with some general cultural factors, and I cannot pretend to account for the phenomenon entirely. But it is my guess that Selby is more of an intuitive artist than a "deliberate" one, at least with regards to the psychological patterns implicit in his work. And this, I believe, has an intimate connection with Last Exit's power, its obsessions and also its limitations. (p. 164)
[Most] novels dramatizing endopsychic conflict in the form of ostensibly different characters have the problem of being too self-conscious and hence too obvious. Selby has created one of those much rarer instances wherein there are too few forces of Good with which to identify, too little distance between the reader and the suffering he is made to witness.
This at any rate seems the case with many readers; others will feel more sufficiently insulated. Either way, Last Exit is a problematic book that deserves to take its place among the Doppelgänger literature, the literature of the "double" or the "second self." It would also be useful to compare it to the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, which at first glance looks so different from Selby's, but which on closer inspection shows more remarkable similarities. Both writers are ironic and at times satiric moralists; both are intensely preoccupied with justice; both are inclined toward violent closures, and unabashedly willing to use the same dramatic structure over as often as they wish. But between O'Connor's stubbornness and (sometimes, not always) devastating appropriateness of action to moral viewpoint and Selby's headlong plunging into retributive situations there are also telling differences. These issues, like Last Exit's formal or structural elegance, so little touched on here, would be well worth exploring. (p. 165)
Richard A. Wertime, "Psychic Vengeance in 'Last Exit to Brooklyn'," in Literature and Psychology (© Morton Kaplan 1974), Vol. XXIV, No. 4, 1974, pp. 153-66.
Hubert Selby's third novel ["The Demon"] by all odds [is] his most ludicrous to date. Ambitious young Harry White is not your ordinary cocksure hero, but possessed of a Major Sexual Urge. These things, as we know, are parceled out unfairly at birth. When Harry exchanges glances with a woman, the game is up. His every seduction is instant, hassle-free and assembly-line dull. In bed of course he outperforms all imaginable husbands. Faithful followers of "Playboy" will recognize the archetype. But there's a grand surprise in store for the thoughtful reader: Harry becomes the victim of his awesome urge, get it? Poor Harry must leave his baseball game, after scoring what proves to be the winning run, so that his demon can score another in bed. How's that for an original donnée?
Eventually it dawns on our hero, for he's not dumber than an ox, that he'd better cut out the skirt-chasing if he ever means to succeed with the Boss. Most readers will look forward to this change, if only for relief from a steady diet of such phrases as "they frolicked and cavorted until they finally went seepy seepy bye bye." Relief never comes, naturally, because (a) Harry is possessed by his demon beyond all salvation and (b) Selby's prose is equally hopeless. Such inchoate groping used to be excused as "hard-hitting" but is nowadays (on the dust jacket) "written from the gut with great compassion." Certainly none for the reader. (p. 68)
When our hero turns sadist and criminal, as we know he must—all who succumb to the demon of lust invariably do—the change again fails to surprise. He has simply reverted to type—to the snarling, suffering, sado-masochistic underground man that has always been Selby's real hero. Harry White, it turns out, is really Harry Black from the "Strike" story in "Last Exit to Brooklyn" after all the veneers of phony conventionality and sublimated impulse are stripped away.
This solemn farce comes equipped with moral gestures: two biblical epigraphs to start and no end of Christian symbolizing at the close, complete with hounds of heaven, a crucifixion (you'll never guess what Sunday) and cries to a silent God. The real moral, however, lies in the obsessive grossness of Selby's style. No wit, irony, qualification, contingency, credibility, subtlety, social or moral complexity appears to distract the monologuist from his dreary exercise. (p. 69)
Dean Flower, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1976.