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 valuable picture of life at society's margins.]
The Battle over the four-letter words or Anglo-Saxon monosyllables or whatever one chooses to call them has been won, for the higher courts seem to have firmly established that no word is obscene in and of itself. For many people, I am sure, the sight of these words on the printed page is still a shocking experience, but they'll get over it. After all, most people have been hearing the words for most of their lives, and it's merely the appearance in print that bothers them. An elderly lady wrote rebuking me for praising a book that had evil words in it; and she went ahead and listed the words in her delicate hand on her delicate notepaper, even, for good measure, throwing in...
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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 causes—once one starts seriously to read it—is a measure of an authentic power which carries through and beyond revulsion. Just who should be asked to undergo this experience is another matter.
Last Exit to Brooklyn consists of six loosely connected stories written over recent years by Hubert Selby Jr., a 38-year-old, Brooklyn-born ex-merchant manner. The stories are all set in the slum-wasteland of waterfront Brooklyn, with occasional subway trips to the seamier pick-up bars off Times Square and the "gay" bars farther uptown. The characters—more animals or "things" really than people—are the ugly superfluous of the underworld: whores, toughs, transvestites, losers all, dispossessed by life, corrupted from birth,...
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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 aware that they cannot be the whole of truth. They both confirm experience—and are caught by limitations imposed by experience.
Selby's world is as hard as a brickbat: greasy all-night diners, darkened bars, garbage-strewn apartments, grinding factories, sinister streets, throbbing motorcycles, and automobiles with radios screaming to calm their occupants.
Through this jungle run the urban predators of the twentieth century: young toughs growing up absurd, girls who hope to make it big as whores, hip queers dressed in silk panties and high on benzedrine, smoldering husbands and swollen-eyed wives; and the kids with their four-letter vocabularies, homemade weapons and taste for marijuana.
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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 technique in Last Exit to Brooklyn.]
What is so remarkable about Selby is that he makes us see all these people as real, e.g., what did John Dillinger read in the bathroom—? Jack The Ripper drinking sherry, perhaps: as against the more devastating manifestations of their "public" faces, the small notations of their lives. All these people are so far from enviable, they live in a special hell: the clue to Selby's brilliance is that he has not invested any of them with dreams and/or aspirations which are, for them, phony. They move in the circumscribed area of their own despair—even Georgette's narcotic dream of happiness with Vinnie is only faggoty desire. As a matter of fact, Georgette's page of impossible romantic...
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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 monotonously as an uncut tape recording, this book is no more about life in Brooklyn than Naked Lunch is about anything. The writing, furthermore, is of no interest at all; the page is hardly graced by punctuation, except for a slash now and then (as in "I/11," to distinguish "I'll" from "ill"). Essentially, the book's relation to literature is the same as that of exposed film to movies: raw material, brutality unmitigated by artistic purpose.
Even if one assumes that the author's intention is not art but eye opening, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a failure. Mr. Selby's eyewitness technique conceals a sentimentality which constantly distorts the issues. In "Strike," for example, a long piece allegedly concerned with a long...
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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 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...
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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 Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn is an interesting case in point. Highly praised by reviewers upon its appearance almost a decade ago, this first of Selby's novels—there is now The Room, his second—was acclaimed as a work of morally serious, unflinchingly honest artistry. The very reviewers who praised it, moreover, acknowledged that its subject matter was socially explosive, and some of them took pains to explain to the public why it was not pornographic. These explanations were useful, perhaps even necessary; doubtless there were many readers for whom Last Exit was sensationalistic, exploitative, immoral. But amid all the talk about the novel's essential truthfulness—or lack thereof—its specifically literary...
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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 novel in the American tradition of Winesburg, Ohio. In each of its six sections there is a concentration on character and a selection of details usually identified with the short story (or novella) form, though the entire work concentrates on the microcosm of universal angst that is Selby's Brooklyn. The fifteen stories in Song of the Silent Snow are, on the other hand, the traditional efforts of the artist to write without an easily recognizable common theme, other than his own vision, experience, and craft. This, in the case of Selby, is saying quite a lot, given his now-famous weltschmerz/weltanschauung conclusions regarding life in America, especially that rotten section of the Big Apple we have come to know and love as...
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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.]
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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 should not be banned, but is without value as literature, having been written "so entirely to no human purpose.".
Fryer, Peter. "To Deprave and Corrupt." Encounter 28, No. 3 (March 1967): 41-4.
Details the censorship case against Last Exit to Brooklyn in England and defends it against the charge of obscenity.
Kermode, Frank. "'Obscenity' and the 'Public Interest'" New American Review No.3 (April 1968): 229-44.
Discusses the London obscenity trial for Last Exit to Brooklyn from a participant's point of view.
Lane, James B. "Violence and Sex in the Post-War Popular Urban Novel: With a Consideration of Harold Robbins's A Stone...
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