Hubert Selby, Jr., is one of the more controversial (and arguably the most pessimistic) of postwar American authors, generally more appreciated in Europe than in his home country. His early life was marked by serious physical illness and a chronic addiction to drugs and alcohol that he managed to overcome in his later years. His first novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn, was banned in Italy and underwent obscenity trials in both England and the United States. It contains six interrelated and deeply depressing stories that focus on the sordid lives of the prostitutes, transvestite homosexuals, drug addicts, and alcoholics whom Selby knew from his youth in Brooklyn. Its narrative style flows with the rhythms of jazz. The characters—the hooker Tralala, the transvestite Georgette, the union boss Harry Black—all suffer from obsessive, self-destructive behaviors that Selby believes result from a simple inability or refusal to love. The rejection of this narcissistic self-obsession in the characters represents the moral and spiritual theme that underlies all of Selby’s naturalistic texts and is the touchstone of his critique of the materialism of American society. The book was filmed in 1989.
The novels The Room and The Demon also focus on individuals whose lives are destroyed by the obsessions and addictions that emerge from their damaged souls. The former text presents a disturbing portrait of an unnamed man who is awaiting trial in a police holding cell. The narrative moves between monologic first-and omniscient third-person viewpoints. The deranged man indulges in pathological paranoid visions of violent revenge against those who have wronged him and in grandiose fantasies of self-justification and of his own omnipotence. Many critics, including the author, feel that The Room is his masterpiece. It stands as one of the most disturbing books ever written about a human being. The theme of inner demons in Selby’s writing comes to the fore in The Demon. Harry White is obsessed with the American dream of success and, driven by the demons of narcissistic sexual addictions, has lost all self-control. The tensions of his psychological conflicts result in his eventual descent into emotional and spiritual numbness. Both novels received a more positive critical reception in Europe than in the United States.
The novel Requiem for a Dream deals with the theme of addiction in the United States, from the blatant horrors of heroin and diet pill abuse to the subtler ones of food obsessions and the self-hypnosis of television. With an uncompromising look at the lives of four addicts—a mother, her son, and two of his friends—who live in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, the narrative paints a devastating portrait of the world of drug addiction. The book was made into a well-received film in 2000 with a screenplay written by Selby.
Selby’s later texts The Willow Tree and Waiting Period strike a more positive note than his earlier works. Although the brutal portrait of reality is still present, the characters of these two later novels—for example, Werner in The Willow Tree—are able to show love and empathy and to experience moments of blissful transcendence or enlightenment in which they feel in harmony with existence. The image of the willow tree represents a spiritual vision of human existence: the protected or sheltered condition of the individual within the universe. Selby appeared in the documentaries Drug-Taking and the Arts (1994), Hubert Selby Jr., 2 ou 3 choses . . . (2000), and Lost Angeles (2000).