Hubert Selby, Jr. Essay - Selby, Hubert, Jr. (Vol. 1)

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.