Hubert Selby, Jr. Essay - Selby, Hubert, Jr. (Vol. 8)

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any kind of writing that describes straight sexuality with a feeling of pleasurable excitement has begun to seem outdated and rear-guard.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.