Introduction

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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...

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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Short Fiction

Last Exit to Brooklyn 1964

Song of the Silent Snow 1986

Other Major Works

The Room (novel) 1971

The Demon (novel) 1976

Requiem for a Dream (novel) 1979

Granville Hicks (essay date 1964)

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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 one word that did not appear in the book.

If in some future time scholars make word-counts to chart the progress of the battle, they will find, I suspect, that there are more of the monosyllables per page in Hubert Selby's collection of stories, Last Exit to Brooklyn, than in anything previously published. At the same time there have been few works in which the use of the words was more obviously justifiable.

Selby, a naturalist in the tradition of Dreiser and Farrell, has chosen to write about people on the lowest level—hoodlums, bums, whores, outcast homosexuals—and he could not have portrayed them realistically if he had not been able to use their vocabulary. The constant reiteration of the words helps to make the reader feel how ugly and barbaric are the lives these people lead.

It is a harsh and cruel world that Selby is describing. Take "Tralala," a story that aroused some controversy a couple of years ago when the editor of the Provincetown Review was arrested for having published it. The story begins, "Tralala was fifteen the first time she was laid." Soon she is finding sex not only her principal diversion but also her chief source of income. She becomes part of a gang that beats and robs drunken passersby and sometimes breaks into stores. She is tough, but not tough enough to last long in the jungle in which she finds herself, and Selby describes the end of her short and miserable life without sparing the reader a single macabre detail.

Most of the men in these stories are either brutes or homosexuals. "The Queen Is Dead" presents, not without some sympathy, a transvestite who goes by the name of Georgette. Georgette's indestructible romanticism and her (his) repeated disillusionment give the story pathos. A long and complicated story, "Strike," introduces one of the most unpleasant characters in fiction, a man who beats his wife, cheats the union of which he is a minor official, and bullies anyone who will let himself be bullied. Though he richly deserves to come to a bad end, the end he does come to is horrifying as well as surprising.

In the last story, which he calls "Coda," Selby gives a cross-section of life in a low-cost housing project. There is Mike, who refuses to work and gets most of his exercise beating his wife. There is the widowed Ada, lonely and respectable and not quite right in the head. There is Abraham, a flashy man who drives a Cadillac. There is Lucy, who tries hard to live decently. There are the women who gather in the park on pleasant days to engage in nasty and malicious gossip. And there are the children in the playground, kids of five or six, whose games are based on the illegal activities of their parents and whose vocabularies are as rich as any adult's.

Like most naturalists, Selby depends on the amassing of details, but he is more soundly selective than some of his predecessors, and he knows very well how to shape a story. Moreover, though he maintains an air of objectivity, he is capable of compassion. This is hell, he seems to be saying, and these are people on whom we must have pity. We must resolutely contemplate their squalor, their brutishness, their empty lives, their callousness, and the poverty of their hopes, and we must consider what their existence means to us.

No author that I can think of has presented so impressive and authoritative an account of the life of people at the bottom of the heap in our so-called affluent society. This is a book that ought to shock us, not because of this word or that, but because a sound craftsman has shown us so much of what we should prefer to ignore.

In 1962 the winner in what might be called the obscenity sweepstakes was William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, which is, among other things, a story of drug addiction. In this book it is the more or less autobiographical hero-narrator who uses the four-letter words, and uses them mostly to express his own disgust with life. Norman Mailer called Burroughs "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius," and Jack Kerouac has described him as "the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift." Readers who have wondered what all the shouting was about are not likely to find an answer in Burroughs's new book, Nova Express.

There are large elements of fantasy in Naked Lunch, but Nova Express is all fantasy, the purpose of which, so far as I can find out, is to puzzle the reader. This is a kind of satirical science fiction, portraying a cosmic war, in which are involved death dwarfs, the Nova Mob, Uranian Willy the Heavy Metal Kid, the Insect People of Minraud, the Crab Nebula, the Thermodynamic Pain and Energy Bank, the Venusians, the Ugly Spirit Spinal Fluid, etc.

All this is mildly amusing if one abandons one's mind to it, but as for meaning, I can only surmise that Burroughs is obliquely attacking various American institutions, as he did in Naked Lunch. I am sure that close scrutiny would yield further meanings—there are, for instance, references to Kafka and Eliot and echoes of Joyce—but I doubt that the necessary exertion would be well rewarded. Of course I may be wrong about this, just as many critics were wrong about Joyce.

Selby's use of the four-letter words is objective and, as I have said, is necessary for the effect he wants to achieve. Burroughs's use of the words is subjective and expressionistic, and whether one regards them as necessary or not depends almost entirely on one's estimate of his achievement. In Nova Express I feel that the words are unnecessary because the book is unnecessary. In any case, so far as the literary future is concerned, my money is on Selby.

Eliot Fremont-Smith (essay date 1964)

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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, devoid of choice.

Love is the perversion for these people. Lust, for sex or blood (there is no distinction, except in the flickering fantasy of a pining queen), is only a mechanical necessity, without moral consequence.

They exist in violence—the outer violence of gratuitous cruelty and destruction, the inner violence of terror, hate and oppressive, senseless frustration. Their language is the language of the gutter, vocal ejaculations of degradation and despair, the obscene grunts and cries that in real life we turn away from, close our ears to, do not hear, cannot retain.

This turning away, not hearing, seems in Selby's mind to be as callous as the brutalities of his characters; for his book is certainly intended as an indictment. "My stories," he once said, "are about the loss of control." But this is not quite accurate; they are about people who never had control, whose aspirations are so elemental, attainments so transitory and range of consciousness so severely curtailed that "control" was never the remotest possibility. Reactions to this of pity or anger therefore become irrelevant; the feelings do go numb—not from horror, but from hopelessness.

The opening story, "Another Day Another Dollar," records in cold-eyed detail the vicious, completely arbitrary mutilation of a soldier by a group of youthful hoods, the arrival of the cops (sullen, always too late, as annoyed at the bloodied, retching victim as at the thugs), and the subsequent elation of the boys as they jostle each other, inspect their shoes for scratches and comb their hair in the washroom of a local all-night diner.

Another story, "Tralala" (which became famous as the subject of the 1961 obscenity trial against Provincetown Review; its defenders included Allen Tate, Norman Podhoretz and Stanley Kunitz, and the case was sensibly discontinued on appeal) deals with the physical destruction, dismemberment almost, of a drunken whore who, out of a mixture of fury and pride, takes on all available males in a parking lot. In a third story, Georgette, a transvestite, is finally brutally used by the young punk "she" hoped to seduce during a nightmarish benzedrine-and-gin queer party.

In the longest and most effective story, "Strike," Harry Black, 33, an inept machinist, shop steward, wife-hater and born loser, stumbles his way to disintegration through a haze of picket signs, corrupt cops, toughs and fairies. Only at the end of his Odyssey, in apocalyptic crucifixion—he is hung up on a billboard by the hoods of "Another Day Another Dollar," having been discovered attempting fellatio on a boy of 10—can he shape a curse appropriate to his and his world's agony.

This is strong stuff—stronger than Genet or Burroughs, and out of sight of campier writers. There is nothing lyrical here, or voluptuous. The closest to "nature" Harry Black gets is in the back of a speeding car full of squirming, squealing, hopped-up queens, radio blaring, on a trip to see the autumn foliage. The nearest Georgette comes to "happiness"—or to feeling anything—is in a supremely vulgar parody of authentic emotion: mascaraed, dressed in drag, almost overcome by sweet melancholy as she awaits hoped-for sex, she recites "The Raven."

There are serious faults in Selby's stories. The degree of violence, the amount of blood and gore and semen, the sheer grotesqueness, sometimes nullifies or engulfs belief. Yet that the author is able to make one believe at all in this sordid, hopeless world is an extraordinary achievement. He does it by a vision of hell so stern that it cannot be chuckled or raged aside, and by a manner of writing which looks tricky but is not—is instead urgent and necessary to that vision.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is not a book one "recommends"—except perhaps to writers. From them, those who wish to read it, it deserves attention.

Webster Schott (essay date 1964)

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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.

Selby lays open the social corpse of Brooklyn, not by telling us its heart is black but by showing us, event after event, the poison draining out of its veins.

The gang hanging around the Greek's in "Another Day Another Dollar" mutilates a soldier purely for the hell of it. Nothing else to do. The "doggies" happened to encounter Freddie, one of the gang, routinely working over his girl:

Rosie walked 6 inches to his right and 6 inches to his rear. He leaned against the lampost and spit past her face. Youre worse than a leech. A leech yacan get ride of. You dont go for nothing. Dont bullshit me ya bastard. I know yascored for a few bucks last night. Whats that to you? and anyway its gone. I aint even got a pack of cigarettes. Dont tell me. I aint ya father. Ya cheap motherfucka! Go tell ya troubles to jesus and stop breaking my balls. I'll break ya balls ya rotten bastard, trying to kick him in the groin, but Freddy turned and lifted his leg then slapped her across the face.

But it's more fun to club soldiers. They're part of authority. They wear uniforms.

With conversation shot from machine guns and obscenities as common as prepositions, these stories move on the surface power of happenings and with the speed of speech. The shock comes as much from Selby's refusal to moralize on these events as from his skill in carving them on the conscience with language like a switch blade. However, a large theme obviously runs through Selby's fiction.

Harry Black, machinist and shop steward turned homosexual, hangs crucified on a jungle gym in "Strike," not only because he tried fellatio on one of the neighborhood kids but because counterfeit love destroyed him. ("Strike," the fullest realization of Selby's powers, is also his most recent and longest story, and it suggests he can go the distance in the novel he is writing on crime and punishment.) The mass rape of the whore Tralala—semen, urine, beer spewed over her mess of flesh—climaxes her professional failure to roll an army officer, but her failure is really a lust for power and things so rapacious it replaces every other feeling. "Coda"—a prose movie reel of a publicly owned apartment complex modeled on the Red Hook project—assaults the spirit because all its human action denies everything we mean by love: infants burn in incinerators, eroticism dies in bedrooms, and to touch is to strike. The typical wedding in Selby's Brooklyn—four hours after the baby's christening—takes us to black humor by way of animal passion and mechanical thrust. While Selby's stones move horizontally from events ricocheting off events, they penetrate vertically with ideas. His dehumanized human beings dramatize a grand mal in the society of the streets and, by Selby's reckoning, everywhere.

Above all, Selby is writing about the distortion of love, the rottenness of its substitutes, and the horror and pathos of its perversion. The shock produces total recoil.

"What I'm attempting to portray," Selby said in a letter to me a few days ago, "are the horrors of a loveless world. What love there is in the book is twisted, turned and directed into something inhuman."

Something, everything, has gone wrong, horribly wrong, in the lives of Selby's characters. Vinnie and the gang can maim and kill, not only without conscience but with joy and exhilaration. Lucy, the puritan Negro in "Coda" responds with a grunt to her husband's proposals, "thinking .. . it would start like every weekend (and many nights too) and just the thought made her muscles tighten and her flesh get clammy." The Greek chorus of "Coda," idle wives waiting on park benches to cash their relief checks at the liquor store, curse the police for rescuing a baby about to fall several stories from an apartment window, and spoiling the day's entertainment. Violence brings Harry Black therapeutic release. He luxuriates in it:

. . . Felt real great when the trucks got blown up, yeah . . . yeah, he felt real good that night and the next day with the picture in the paper . . . yea, that's when they started to know who he really was. . . . Fuck them, the ball-breakers. They couldn't shove him around anymore. . . . Aint breakin my balls anymore . . . thats right, aint had that dream since the strike started. Blow a couple more trucks up and I'll never have it.

Tralala, who dies with cigarette butts crushed out on her breasts and a broomstick jammed into her body, "was 15 the first time she was laid. There was no real passion. Just diversion." The men who ravage her quit because they can't think of anything else to do to her. Seeing her from a cab sprawled in the vacant lot, Jack pounds his leg and roars with laughter. Rape is funny. When Harry Black's strike catches fire "the police, who had been standing, bored, for months . . . finally found what they too had been waiting for. . . . " Brutality relieves monotony.

It's almost as if Selby, who has never read Paul Goodman's Utopian proposals, had set out to write a fictional demonstration of their urgency. The products of work are meaningless to Selby's characters. Social and economic imbalances have shoved youth into total disaffiliation. Out of boredom his part-time thugs drift into full-time violence. Acquaintance with a professional criminal is as good for one's status as owning a motorcycle. Offered no goals, Selby's humans devise gorrilla entertainments. The fraternity of distorted sex, drugs, alcohol and mayhem becomes their community because society provides no alternatives except a faceless housing authority that threatens eviction from a concrete cliff. Natural contempt: human feces on the elevator floor. Affection, emotional union, empathy in Last Exit to Brooklyn exist in a limbo beyond love. The nearest thing to man-woman eroticism in the book takes place between homosexuals or men and machines. Abraham, the longshoreman, caresses, fondles, sings to his love object—"his bigass Cadillac."

The only conventional love and constructive association in the book is a reminiscence: an old woman's recollection of oneness with her dead husband. As if to compensate for the absence of love in Selby's other stories, she lays out his pajamas each night in hope that Hymie will return from the dead.

Like steel, the form of Selby's fiction becomes its subject. Language imitates action. Selby's two-page sentence describing the collision of police, strikers and firemen begins quietly, with clipped participles and slow verbs. It accelerates by repeating key words and gathers more speed with verbs and conjunctions as the fire hoses tear at the men and the strikers chew at authority. Then, as human rubble fills the streets, Selby decelerates with long, open vowels and a retarded iambic foot:". . . soon it was quiet enough to hear the ambulance sirens and the louder moans that spewed from the mass and soon too the street was clear of the smaller debris and even the blood had washed away."

"Tralala" starts with a tight, short line—tough, hard and aggressive like a girl on the make. As lust for power through sex degenerates into physical collapse, the line becomes longer. As in prose poetry, the line is the measure of form in Selby's fiction. And his style is speech. "I hear these things first," he says, "Eventually I'll have a style. But as for deliberately and consciously attempting to create a style, it has no place in art. All I've tried to do is incorporate a rhythm that will reveal the psychodynamics of person and place."

Reading Selby's book I kept worrying in the margins whether we have a critical vocabulary to describe it. I think not. As many threads lead to the naturalism of Dreiser and Farrell as to the expressionism of Gottfried Benn, and the cruel romanticism of Faulkner. The stabbing conversation may come from Hemingway, but it is overlaid with the existential desperation of William Burroughs. Last Exit to Brooklyn cannot be shaken as fiction. It's as real as a loaded pistol.

"I'm trying," Selby says, "to overwhelm the reader with truth, like Beethoven, so that weeks, months, or any damn time after he has finished the book and whether he liked it or it disgusted him, he will be forced to think." Only Beethoven and Isaac Babel, he says, have had an effect on his work—"Beethoven's ability to repeat and stop at precisely the right time." Babel he admires for the "extreme surface power of his stories that forces you to go to total emotional depth." I'm inclined to think that neither Selby nor anyone else can trace his sources. They come from within—an agonizing social conscience and a total lack of literary sophistication. Uneducated (a year and a half of high school), a jack-of-all-trades with Babel's picture in his billfold, Selby is a genuine sport—a modern American primitive who has seen in a new way and discovered a new (and ancient) eyewitness means of recording his vision. The dirty words are dirty because our speech is dirty. The horrors aren't hallucinated; they're real. Love hasn't flown the coop; it hatched as hatred. While the palefaces have gone off to Stanford or the Iowa Writers Workshop to fashion sestinas to their psyches or compete for a place in Esquire's Hot Center, Selby has written from his gut with the compassion that Dostoevski called the chief law of human existence. An articulate literary renegade, Selby has created more than he has seen, exploding remembered violence and depravity in a Rorschach of living savagery.

And we have been wholly unprepared for him. Critical response to his book confirms my suspicion that despite the legacies of Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kinsey the American literary establishment is run by the intellectual heirs of Mary Poppins. Granville Hicks defends Selby's "dirty" words in the Saturday Review with the gratuitousness of necessity. Eliot Fremont-Smith in The New York Times honors Selby and finally takes everything back with "not a book one 'recommends'—except to writers." And Time pronounces Last Exit to Brooklyn "Grove Press's extra special dirty book for fall."

Why not send these folks a copy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? They're ready for it. Or to really play it safe, send them around the world on Rockefeller grant.

The only criticism of Last Exit to Brooklyn one can allow would have to be applied to most of Selby's serious contemporaries, and perhaps I'm asking that red turn green before our very eyes instead of providing the after-image. Selby obviously considers his Brooklyn to be the world in microcosm. His epigraphs from scripture imply a universality for Last Exit to Brooklyn. The collage of "Coda" suggests a world. "I would like to believe they (the lack of empathy and the other qualities of love) don't exist or are absent in other elements of our society," he says, "but, of course, they do. I do think the downfall of these people can be found in the faults of other people. Acquiring money, neglecting the home, abandoning children—the results will be the same, emotional strangulation. The symptoms will be manifested differently."

So far so good. The nice guys in the surburbs who wave at cops instead of giving them the finger, and the upper-middle-class ladies who attend extension courses instead of scouting the bars, work out their hostilities with therapists or take it out on one another late at night after a couple of Scotches. With imagination one can move out of the Brooklyn wasteland to a larger and somewhat genteel grave yard of love.

But it's a narrow purity Selby practices. He cannot show us what love is—or chooses not to. This inability or refusal prevents most of contemporary literature from achieving complete relevancy. The question is posed in the negative in our new literature—what isn't love? We must infer what love is through experience beyond Last Exit to Brooklyn, or through Selby's compassionate act of having written the book. This would have been richer and perhaps even more terrifying fiction if it had explored love as well as its denial. A restricted view obstructs whole areas of human feeling. We are thrown back to Last Exit to Brooklyn as reparation for stillborn love in Brooklyn and its equivalents in the urban garbage cans.

Selby's people do not know what love is and cannot express it, as Goodman has said, because their society has given them no opportunity to find out. "They wouldn't have known love if they had seen it," Selby says. "It would have been mistaken for something else—weakness or fear." We believe Selby's characters and will never be able to forget them. But they are not Everyman. In praising Selby's astonishing power to tear our sensibilities, one must remember that this is part, not all, of the world we would weep for. And that part, as Auden suggests in Casino, never had a chance. That is the new American tragedy:

. . . Deeper in these hands is
grooved their fortune: "Lucky
Were few, and it is possible
that none was loved;
And what was godlike in this generation
Was never to be born."

Gilbert Sorrentino (essay date 1964)

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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 desire, her "vision" of a love idyll with Vinnie is perhaps the most unerring detection of the vulgar since the scene in the room above the town festival with Emma and Rodolphe in Madame Bovary—although she is on a "higher" level than those with whom she associates; her dreams place her, precisely, in her element, which seems to me a cogent understanding of the homosexual, an avoidance of the adventurous cast in which his world has been so often molded. The look is without pity, but not without compassion. Georgette, after all, really does love Vinnie, as well as she possibly can.

The use of cops. "Another Day Another Dollar," the scene with the hoods, GIs, and cops: when that cop speaks you get chills up your back, he almost clubs you from the page itself. You can see his fat, red face and sloping shoulders, the blue uniform stained black under the arms, the other copper moving sullenly around the edge of the crowd, waiting for someone to say something out of line. (In "Double Feature," the sudden terror which ends a very funny sequence occurs when two cops enter the theater at the complaint of the manager in re: the two young drunks.) If you prove you can't freely conduct yourself, you are forced to conduct yourself according to the laws of a more powerful phenomenon . . . cops, hoods, junk, what have you.

Selby: "My stories are about the loss of control." You can live a total lie out so long as you act as if you belong to the society—in Selby's case, since the society is hellish, brutal, one wrong step and your head is broken—and it begins as a child (the playground scenes in "Landsend"; nobody has a chance). If you allow what is bothering you to get out of control for just an instant, you pay the price of destruction. The police are interchangeable with the society in the strict mechanistic terms of punishment for transgression. If the skillet doesn't fry you, the fire will broil you. A harsh world of pain and horror, the police aid and abet the misery, they don't, in any way, alleviate it.

The world of these streets sheer chaos, love does not exist in a world of violence except in the hokey, campy love of Georgette for Vinnie. She loves him, but in some story-book way based on a future which is not only not realizable, but which doesn't even exist as a vague possibility. Her future is death, she dies on the subway (where else?) in her pathetic dream, if she hadn't she would live to go back uptown, still craving Vinnie, still convinced that their lives together could be beautiful—the ultimate mistake of the orgasm theory.

Important to realize that these people have not wholly been turned into what they are by the society in which they exist—they, in a very real sense, have created this society, Frankenstein creating a monster who hunts down his creator, things interact. Everything is spurious and shoddy but death and pain and squalor which are unbearably real. In "Landsend," nothing is of value, from Ada, whose religion is psychopathological, to Abraham, who starves his children to keep his Caddy going, all is filth and horror. The women in the project's "recreation" areas turn, as the story progresses, into Yahoos, searching each other's heads for lice.

"Strike" is, for me, a masterpiece, possibly the finest short story written in this country in a decade. Every false ideal, every rotting set of values, every cliché we have ever heard about marriage, homosexuality, labor and management, the dignified poor—all are exposed by this merciless flat prose. No comments, ever, in Selby. The prose moves the experience directly to you, it is style-less.

That which stands out so clearly in Selby's prose is the fact that none of it is what is thought of as "quotable." There is no "style," no "elegance." He is, by any standards which may be used to measure him, a PROSE writer—nothing at all of the poet in him, the stories are constructed simply, in a horizontal line, the words are true to the narrative they move. And the narrative moves, forward, the classic climax is reached, the story pitches down, no chance for a reversal, at all. It is like one dull stone piled atop another, nothing remarkable about them in any way at all, and suddenly the mind is confronted by a pyramid, an overwhelming edifice—it won't go away, a new thing has been made and placed in the world.

The ear for speech, impeccable. People don't talk the same way unless they are joined together in some common purpose, have common lives, goals, desires. The great mistake of so many prose-writers in their transcription of speech is to record its syntactical eccentricities and habits carelessly, e.g.—they'll have an uneducated laborer speak the same way as an uneducated thug. Or, a cop will speak the same way as those he bullies, and arrests. The mark of brilliance and honesty in speech transcription resides in the differentiation of language patterns. Only a fool can be misled by the heavyhanded vulgarity of so many popular prose-writers who mistake one brand of grammatical aberration and slang, for another. Look at the differences, subtle and beautiful, in Selby's work, between the speech of those who are societally close to each other. Cops and thugs, thugs and queers, Italians and Negroes. The speech of Alex, who runs the diner, with that perfect placing of his scatah! The difference in speech as the character normally employs it, as against the way he speaks when he is placed in a situation in which he is not at home, not comfortable, viz., Harry Black, one, the way he speaks to his wife, two, the way he speaks at the job, three, the way he speaks to the union officials, four, the way he speaks to the queers in the gay bar, five, the way he speaks to his wife after he has become homosexually involved. These are real differences, recorded perfectly. As James used speech to move and develop his narrative, his unfolding plot, Selby uses it to denote aspects and/or changes of character, emotional states. Check also the subtle differences in the cop's threats to the thugs and to the GIs in "Another Day." The former a bluff, a "gruff reproof"—the latter loaded with poison, and very real. Finally, the incredible pre-strike speech of the union boss to the members. For me, one of the most precise delineations of the pompous and vulgar I've read in years. Each word set into that speech as a tile, the grammatical mistakes are of the sort that his listeners would never recognize, but would consider a mark of being "smart," there is a veneer of "culture" (after all, this is the boss) over the words, as he gives them cliché after cliché. What is more remarkable, they are so placed that one can see behind the words, as it were, discover the gross distortions of fact, the real contempt he has for the rank and file as he patronizes them. They're all "buddies"—he loathes them. It is a parallel to the vulgarity registered by politicians when they smilingly eat, in order, knishes, pizza, and cuchifritos on the Lower East Side. A fantastic contempt for the populace, but the unerring knowledge of the "leader" that his crassest insults, his most flagrant patronization seem like unity with them. Even though they know he's a son of a bitch, they fall for it when he kisses a baby; how many Puerto Ricans voted for Rockefeller because he speaks Spanish?—Words are weapons, when joined with the properly related acts, they are formidable weapons, viz., Selby's intrusions of remarks describing the boss leaning "wearily" on the lectern, his "worn" face, his "humble" stilling of applause.

Again, Selby has a perfect eye and ear for strata of society, their beliefs, values, the things they cherish and desire. In "Tralala," he sends her, after she realizes that her body, and especially her huge breasts, are real sexual assets, out of the filth of the Brooklyn neighborhood in which she was born, to Manhattan, to search for more lucrative trade. To anyone who knows people like Tralala, their ideas of elegance, and the big-time, the bar he sends her to in order to hustle registers with a shock that is so acute one forgets how absolutely perfect a spot it is: The Crossroads. Exactly the right combination. Someone like Tralala would know the bad rep of joints like the 8th Avenue bars (where she eventually gravitates), would never move into a hotel bar (an impossible field of action for a Brooklyn slut, better send an East Harlem junkie to Brooks Bros. for clothes), and the small, expensive traps in the East Fifties would never see her—significantly, not because they are expensive and chic, but because, being in the Fifties and outside the area of Times Square, they would never seem to her places where she could hustle well-paying customers. Tralala would select exactly what she does select, The Crossroads; the perfect example of vulgar pretension, strictly for the tourist, who thinks that New York begins at 42nd and ends at Rockefeller Center; apropos of this, I wonder how many tourists think of Times Square as "seamy"—I would hunch less than 50%. One must remember that Tralala is one of the millions of Americans who live out their lives in the belief that a nightclub looks like a Hollywood set of the 30s, complete with Fred Astaire; if she ever went to, say, The Blue Angel, she'd think somebody was putting her on, what, this a nightclub? Selby is completely aware of this. What is mediocrity and vulgarity to an expensive whore is the zenith of "night-life" for Tralala. Selby's power is partially explained by this exhaustive, painstaking attention to details. See also, the cars the hoods talk about in "Another Day"—not a Ferrari, Mercedes, or Rolls in the lot. These people are real because their acts are acts which are utterly true to the environment they inhabit, they explain it, and vice-versa.

Part of the fascination Vinnie feels for Georgette lies in the fact that he thinks of her as cultured. She seems to hold out to him a world so far removed from his own experience of slums, violence, prison, etc., that he can't resist finding out what she knows, or what he thinks she knows. So, too, the rest of the guys in the queer party uptown. The fags are hip, the hoods are not. A less penetrating writer would have Vinnie a bebop fan. But people like Vinnie were not bebop fans. They listened to popular music, and do so today. Maybe today a Vinnie might listen to "soul" music or the Bossa Nova, but you'd never catch him with a John Coltrane or Omette Coleman record. There are such subtle gradations of difference in the "lower" classes, and Selby is aware of them. One thinks of the fantastic inaccuracies of reporters who write that kids say "hep" to each other, wear levis and sweat shirts, and greet each other with phrases like "hiya Gate." These guys are always at least ten years behind what's happening, and their confusion of present values (real) with present values (imagined) sullies their reportorial accuracy as concerns both the present and the past. Selby is deadly accurate. Vinnie is amazed by Bird. Of course—Vinnie knew as much of Bird in the mid-forties as Miss America did. Maybe less. Bad, or careless, or popular writers are not only that, they are immoral as well.

They extrapolate cultural values from economic levels on assumption, thereby confusing whole segments of society with other segments. The stories, the intellectual "sets" created out of such confusions enable great lies to persist, viz., the white middle-class, as well as the black middle-class, conception of the lower-class Negro and his "tastes." Or, check the fantasies apparent in this confusion: the mistaking of "bopping" gangs with those who listened to the music, bebop. Boppers (the rumbling gangs) were called that after bop was dead, they listened to R & B, rock 'n' roll, mambos. Or the confusion, still apparent, of beatniks with hipsters, hipsters with junkies, junkies with beatniks, beatniks with artists. Bad, dishonest writers play on the public's desire to be deluded, and they prosper thereby. Selby wrenches things back into context. The lie can become so great that even the actual inhabitants of the various social strata may be duped, e.g., many beatniks think of themselves as hipsters, while there are no hipsters at all today, at least not in New York; again, vocals in the Sinatra-Darrin-Damone style (the Las Vegas syndrome), with fingersnapping and big bands orchestrated mostly for muted brass behind the ancient bebop 4-4 splash cymbal, are thought of (by apparently thousands) as "hip." Only a writer with a passion for delineating his time and environment can explode this kind of garbage in thought. As well as being a finished artist, Selby is a meticulous student of the lower-class, the underworld, the dispossessed. The people he writes of are not the one or two who are weekly sentenced for murder and extortion—they are the hundreds who are daily sentenced (or not sentenced at all) for assault, Sullivan Law violations, disturbing the peace, etc. They are the men who don't break out of Alcatraz and Quentin with Bogart and Cagney, but who cop pleas and draw one to three in such unknown and unprepossessing spots as Coxsackie and Elmira. The differences between robbing a car and a bank between mugging and armed robbery, are real. The exact separation of one sort of criminal from another makes clear whole pockets of society. Dante put his various sinners in different bolgia; he made a moral separation. Selby does the same in his mundane hell.

Selby presents his homosexuals as people whose lives are not particularly glamorous, nor are they sordid, given the world in which they move—they are essentially futile. Most literature has tried to depict the homosexual as someone to be laughed at, shocked by, or pitied. Not in these stories; they are essentially vulgar and their lives are a scramble to avoid the world of the john, although the john is preyed upon and laughed at. One of the great miseries of Harry Black in "Strike" is that he is never accepted by the other queers as queer. When they met him he was a john, but though his homosexual proclivities become more active, more pronounced, he remains in their eyes what he originally was, the same john; or, worse, he is thought of as a "dilettante" queer. They refuse to consider him as someone who wants to love, he eventually bores his lover when he runs out of money near the end of the strike. His value as a john is over, he has discovered that he now is in a position which is neither homosexual nor heterosexual, and cannot handle this fact, cannot "adjust" to the fact that the queers think of him as someone who is simply square. The ultimate placing of the homosexual in "Strike" comes in the drag ball, which Harry attends, and where, incidentally, he is not attracted to the queens but to the other "active" (male) queers. The queens are not presented as immoral, or evil, the situation is not really sordid, but grotesque, there is a kind of bizarre humor about it which becomes more bizarre because the participants are not at all aware that they are so. Their frenzied dancing in women's clothes is what it is, ridiculous, as men in women's clothes always look to a non-partisan eye. When the dancing queens' genitals fall out of their lace panties, it is certainly not an occasion of eroticism, but one of hilarity. It is to Selby's credit that he refuses to ornament such situations. Harry is pitiable, but the queens are gross. While their lives, when they are "straight," may be a constant whirl of riposte and wit, when in drag, they take their places in the ludicrous world which Harry Black skirts the fringes of, and to which they have barred his entrance. He is a john, while they are hip. A finely drawn comment on the narcissistic qualities of the hermetic group.

Some more on the homosexual in Selby's work: In "Queen," one of the fags screams in disgust when the girl upstairs is rushed to the hospital in advanced labor—"you're bringing me down!" Also one of the favorite epithets one queer will use against another (or against a queer-baiter) is, "you rotten fairy"—and in "Strike," the fag who dances with Harry in the strike HQ was at one time a bricklayer, and takes delight in squeezing Harry's hand between her forearm and biceps; a grim gesture toward a world of virility and strength which she has long ago abandoned. What seems to come through these instances is a double-edged "set" toward the heterosexual world, a sort of hatred inextricably wedded to a feeling of superiority e.g.—"even though I'm gay, I'm more of a man (or woman) than you are"—or, as above, in "Queen," a feeling of revulsion and apathy toward the normal functioning of the woman, as if childbirth is somehow "square." The most salient example of this duality, this love/hate occurs at the end of "Strike" when Harry, who is left bloody and beaten in the lot after making advances to a small boy, shouts (in his mind) "GOD YOU SUCK COCK!" A hatred for a God who would allow him to suffer such implacable despair, along with a real desire, a need, that God be a homosexual. The statement is, at once, both blasphemous and adoring.

Harry is, absolutely, a schlemiel: without that word's humorous connotations. There is no area of his life in which he is successful. As husband and father, he is inept and psychotic. As worker, he is sloppy and lazy. As shop steward, he is a patsy, used by the union. The management simply wants him fired as a condition for acceding to the strikers' demands. As a rather hopeless example of the john, he fails miserably because he thinks that his homosexual lover will really love him. And, finally, when he succumbs to his desire to become an overt, active homosexual, he picks on a little boy in his own neighborhood. A loser, a suicidal character all the way.

The movement of the background, the social aspects of "Strike," coincide with Harry's movement from a partially "controlled" existence to a shambles of acts and emotions which bring about his destruction. He can be neither normal nor homosexual. Another reason why the fags he meets have contempt for him is that he hasn't enough strength to shun his "daytime" world or his gay world. In the gay bar he thinks he's impressing the queer at the bar when he tells him he's a shop steward, in charge of the strike; and of course, he is secretly laughed at. A shop steward is, simply, a john, but Harry doesn't know this, he never knows it. The homosexuals go along with him so long as he has money, though, and so long as his vulgarity and naiveté are amusing, which seems a fairly lucid statement on the lumpen qualities of sexual desire, both homo- and heterosexual; again, no world of adventure, no superior and "dangerous" existence as limned by the homosexual writing of our time. This is simply how it is. An insistence on the equality of grossness shared by both arenas; a fat, pimply whore as against a beard disguised with face powder—both quite ugly. Selby has shone a strong light on areas heretofore lost in shadows. The stories, without comment, comprise a manual of candid distinctions.

"Landsend" is the last word on the low-rent housing project—it stands as the bitterest and fiercest indictment yet written on this contemporary phenomenon. Needless to say, it will probably be thought of as an anti-human attack, whereas it is actually an anti-humanist attack. Here, Selby intimates, is the upshot of that renaissance dogma that man stands at the center of his world. These people are at the center of the world, the housing project is a Utopian concept, e.g., give the slobs better housing and they'll be good. Not a start toward understanding the individual problems of the poor and sick. What is ignored in this cynical bureaucracy is the fact that these people are striving for those values which are essentially useless, if not evil, values of a world devoid of humanitarian feeling, while drenched with the idea of the individual. Perfectible man is moved a notch further toward perfectibility by putting him in "better" housing—no matter the damage to him by this sterile and vicious institutionalizing. So long as one puts up a little "recreation area" every block or so, complete with backless benches and leafless trees, the middle-class conscience is assuaged. If the emotional bankruptcy of living in such cells bursts out in destruction and violence, these same minds simply set it down to ingratitude, the ingratitude of the bestial poor, the minority which isn't "ready" yet to take its place in the pursuit of happiness the rest of us are apparently engaged in (and one may note that only the American Declaration of Independence speaks of the "pursuit of happiness"—presumably the "happiness" attainable by those who were granted the franchise). The simple violence and bestiality of the poor is condemned by the people who display the identical traits in a more subtle, complex, and "sophisticated" way—the former is called criminality, while the latter is labeled rugged individualism. The distinctions are implied in "Landsend," the frustration and misery of being a tenant in this cynically and carelessly "given" housing bursts from these people in section after section, a horror of despair, ugliness, violence, and stupidity. But is it any more culpable, any more putrid than the drug firm which sold thalidomide even though it was known to be dangerous? Is that Chairman of the Board in Coxsackie? The populace of "Landsend" will see plenty of jails for acts which are certainly no worse: but they are "ungrateful." Why weren't they happy in their nice concrete rooms, with their nice iron stairs, and their lovely leafless trees? The middle-class mind will apparently never understand the difference between a vicious crime and a crime caused by a day-in, day-out environment of viciousness. The inhabitants of "Landsend" are indeed enthusiastic followers of the Zeitgeist, they're going along with the values that the "better" elements have prescribed as correct—their methods are cruder, and they can only expect a state-appointed defense, so they rarely come up smelling like a rose as does, say, Charles Pfizer. Or, look at it this way: these people do their best to live up to that old tried-and-true (and patently un-Christian) aphorism, "God helps those that help themselves." Which, incidentally, is a proverb which was first seen in Poor Richard's Almanac, by that most humanistic and bourgeois of the founding fathers, good old Ben Franklin—which seems to prove something about the red, white and blue God we have invented here. He's a conservative. The only trouble is that they usually get caught "helping" themselves. It's a toss-up between jail and welfare, even though these poor citizens are following the accepted prescription for the good life: but no matter where they wind up the Goldwaters and the Mitchells seem to assume their crimes stem from some evil flaw, which in turn stems from a vague and unexplained un-American and un-Christian attitude. Even Luther would roll in his grave to see what had been made of him. The idea that the poor deserve their poverty is not so discredited as one would like to think.

Selby is a moralist, although not one in the sense that he intrudes on his stories in order to let you know what he, as a writer, thinks. The stories are perfectly clear, without any comments from him. Or, as Allen Tate, at the defense of "Tralala" in Provincetown said, the moral of the story is "the wages of sin is death." Selby's people, as I have implied, are perfect examples of democratic people—they live in a world which has raised to staggering importance the dictum of the individual's importance, his free will, his freedom of choice. Their choices, however, given the environment which somebody else 's free choice has handed them, or forced them into, are invariably the wrong ones, and they suffer for their acts. It's important to point out that the odds against them making the choices they do are staggering. Selby's stories, although they are not "social," are a perfect delineation of the effect of environment on character; conversely, they limn the oftentimes forgotten concomitant of that—the impossibility of character functioning properly in an environment which actually gives it no selection of choice at all—so it is a kind of hypocritical democracy these people partake of, much like that of Negroes who try to register to vote in Mississippi. When Tralala opens the captain's love letter to her it is to check and see whether there is any money in it—she tears it up in disgust when she finds there is none, just his protestations of love for her. What kind of love could she know? Where has her "wise" selection of possibly proffered loves been exercised? She, like the old song says, don't know what love is. The most meaningful example of her worth, the one thing which she can draw on to prove her value as herself, Tralala, a woman, not a cipher, is her sexual ability, when, at the end, she offers to take on the whole neighborhood in a gang-shag. This seems to me so utterly sad, so crushing, that it is unutterable. She doesn't do this as a "gag," or for money, she does it (God help us ) out of a feeling of pride in herself, her worth and "know-how" as a whore. In her mind, she has not defiled her body, nor do those who take advantage of her offer, defile theirs. She triumphs over those she feels contempt for, she has taken her choice (and what other?). Also, see Harry's end in "Strike," as counterpoint to these remarks on the cast, such a meager selection of choices in such a world will put on any act. Originally, Selby had Hairy dying at the end: to enhance the force of his degradation, his tragedy, he allows him to live, the implication of what his future life will be in such environment as he inhabits is obvious—he is ruined, just as effectively as John Profumo was ruined. One must remember that the world of Harry Black is not one which may be deserted at will; Harry can't move to another neighborhood and "start fresh." His "choices" are strictly limited. One enters this world of necessity, and one dies in it unless an economic event of almost-miraculous proportions takes place. It must be stressed that the change in the ending is one of kind, not degree, of "wages."

Selby's style: nothing is ever described in terms of physical characteristics. Which places him in the position of being forced to give us the truth—occasionally clothing is described since in a world such as Selby proposes, clothing is a badge of situation or intent. But it is never used as a gimmick, but as a fact. Some writers, the best, let's say, of the "popular" writers, use clothing and "taste" as an indication of what to expect from the character—this will occur in Fitzgerald, more especially, O'Hara. But they are concerned, of course, with the clash of different segments of society. Many times, they are totally out of touch, as, O'Hara's conceptions, in stories written in the last five years, of the Village, painting, the new poetry and fiction. These are conceptions that are fifteen or twenty years old. Again, O'Hara will use a description of a vulgar character's tasteless clothes as an indication of that character's inherent vulgarity: the reader is clued as to what to think. Occasionally, as if to show you that it's nothing but a gimmick, he'll write a story like "Exactly Eight Thousand Dollars Exactly": one character is held against another, the reader is given over to the movement of the story in terms of these characters' appurtenances and acts, and at the end, he turns the tables on you, a writer's joke. Which certainly indicates that he knows that these tricks are simply that, no more. It's almost a confession that he's aware that his great failures are failures of character delineation, though they are cloaked in a dense, pointed resumé of social appearances. Fitzgerald, of course, never understood the poor, and confused poverty with vulgarity. What's worse, he confused "family" money with "breeding." Which, in a bizarre way, is his great value—he demonstrates that in a world of fun and games, it is possible, even probable, that one may learn to climb the ladder: which is a useful, though oblique comment on said move. Gatsby is a classic manual on this process, and proves that Fitzgerald understood, thoroughly, the world of the parvenu. But his mentality was middle-class, he thought this world, for all its failings, was better than the world of the poor; and I don't mean that in an economic way; it was, simply, better, morally and ethically. The dullest Midwestern boy and the most vapid Southern girl, so long as they had position and money, fascinated him. If his bitterness had only come to him earlier we might have had a literature of the affluent which would have stood as clear as Selby's does on the rejects. But he is often embarrassing, he didn't even know how the poor speak, and the words he puts in their mouths are as hopeless as Henry James' conception of a Boston cop's syntax. When he uses such speech for "comic" effect, it comes out like Amos 'n' Andy. Selby never uses these superficial things to move along his narrative. His ear, as I said, is incredibly acute. There is a section in "Queen" in which perhaps eight people are talking, and the reader knows, absolutely, who is doing the talking: a precision of recording, for narrative effect and character placement, not to show how "good" he is. Dialogue used, not as a verbatim transcription of the language people use, but as a revelation of their positions within the hellish society they inhabit. Of course, Selby doesn't employ anything resembling a "clash" of societies in any of his stories. I would guess that his idea is that if one society is presented in all its facets a reader may gauge his own against it, illuminating his own particular area of life. In totally presenting this world of the wretched and violent, Selby implies a truth, or truths, for those who do not live in it, but who live on a higher plane, socially, morally, or economically. Their movements may be gauged against the movements of those who are not so fortunate, or so good.

At the risk of rehashing the absurdities of the Provincetown Review trial, I feel a few remarks might be in order in re: the "obscenity" of "Tralala." The old banality holds true: anyone who could be excited by "Tralala" is in bad shape to begin with; again, none of the sex scenes in Selby are exciting in the pornographic sense of that term. The smattering of love that one finds in his stones is always sullied by the terms of its actuality: it's either love on one partner's part—the other thinks of it as lust, or gratifiction—or, the partner is disgusted and/or terrified by it. These few "love" scenes are the only ones which might possibly enclose the never-never land of pornography where women are nymphomaniacs and men are capable of countless orgasms. The other sex scenes in Selby (those totally devoid of love, or "tenderness") are, in a word, horrifying. The gang-shag in "Tralala," the fierce and pathological rape that Harry commits on his wife in "Strike" (who doesn't know it's a rape, or pathological—there's a comment on the quality of that marriage for you!), the fumbling and giggling excitement of the queers over their rough trade: all these things are so far removed from the excitement of pornography as to seem self-evidently non-salacious. They lack the eroticism of love, and the eroticism of simple lust—in Selby lust is most often revealed as the opposite of love, not a concomitant. To call these stories obscene or pornographic seems to me to be an indication of idiocy or neurosis . . . but not really. Selby's people do, say, and think what people like this (and not necessarily like this) really do, say, and think, e.g., everybody looks alike in the sex act, the variations being learnable, and exhaustible. Selby's sex episodes seem to terrify those who would ignore the fact that a human being's sexual knowledge really has very little to do with soft lights, sweet music, and the smell of expensive perfume. He speaks of this trite aspect of human life in an off-hand, matter-of-fact way, bluntly, as he speaks of all the events he wishes to delineate. It may be his matter-of-factness, his candor, which enrages the good people concerned with public morals. He is not only not erotic, more significantly, he is not exotic. None of the other contemporary writers (with the exception of Genet) whose names are most often associated with "writing about sex" can totally avoid that latter term. Burroughs, Miller, Durrell, Mailer, Rechy, Baldwin—all occasionally turn on the orange lights and cover the bed with black silk sheets. In their work, lust occasionally becomes attractive; for Selby, lust is the crushing price one pays for not possessing love, or for being ignorant or mistaken about it. Nathanael West looked at it in somewhat the same way, but his vision was cynical and not so intransigently uncompromising as to push the idea to its limit. Selby pushes it all the way, and then over the edge.

Selby has told me that the prose writers he most admires are Swift, Crane, William Carlos Williams, Isaac Babel. Among his contemporaries, Rumaker and Woolf. An even cursory examination of the work of these men compared with his own will reveal the same essential attention to the minute detail, the "flat" word, the simple declarative sentence, the absence of bizarre syntax: basically, the attention is directed toward what is being said, the experience, the emotion itself—as removed from the glittering icing which is so praised in our time (v. Updike). And not a simplicity raised to the conscious level of "style"—as in the latter work of Hemingway, or the imitations of popularizes like Shaw and Jones. For Selby, as for the writers he admires, "style" is malleable, not something which, once achieved, may be used as a container for varying shades of emotion, as trademark. The style is transparent, not noticed, as one does in Updike, a virtuoso of the banal, whose style is so labored that one may be momentarily blinded to the fact that he is saying nothing, his emotional registrations are phony, it is Euphues reincarnated. His work is a trompe l'oeil of letters: wow! that really looks just like an old poster and a rusty nail! On Tad Madison's knotty pine wall, or: The Tragicall Historie of a Copiewriter.

I can't recall ever before seeing a technical device such as Selby employs in his stories so masterfully. I speak of the rapid change within the paragraph, and sometimes even within the sentence, from one voice to another, usually the first person to the third, and vice versa: in "Another Day Another Dollar," to select one model, we have: "The cop stepped over to the soldier and told him if he didn't shut up right now he'd lock him up and your friend along with you." (italics mine) What we are given here is a remarkably versatile device enabling the narrator to remain in the third person, but overcoming the sometimes restrictive necessities of that position, by being able to identify, at will, with whatever speaker happens to be holding forth in a story at a given time. What is so useful concerning this device is that it precludes the necessity of inventing a first person narrator who would necessarily be part of the story, another character; or of slipping in James' "invisible observer." Selby is able to remain aloof from the story, remain the writer as writer, not character, and yet at the same time can enter the story as whatever character's voice he chooses to assume, as in the example above. This seems to me to be an extremely liberating technique for a writer of prose, giving him total freedom within the action of the story, but allowing him the omniscience that a first person narrator could not have (Gatsby, The Good Soldier). It tends to give the prose a quality of strength and speed and drive, a genuine support for the older discovery (which Selby employs) that one need not say, "he said" and "she said" so long as the dialogue is precise to its characters. I've heard people say that this is an indication of Selby's "primitive" qualities, which serves as an indication of the perception of the gentle readers. The more intimate one becomes with these remarkable stories, the more one realizes that Selby has taken great care with each word: another reason why the stories are lacking in "quotability." Each word builds to the end of the story, the stories are wholes, none of them can be excerpted from without an almost total loss being suffered in the quality of the excerpted section.

That Selby's prose is full of technical brilliance, is a truism. What is more, none of it is gratuitous, but all contributes to what is happening in the narrative. The use of upper case letters in the Vinnie and Mary sections of "Landsend" is not a "humorous" invention: Vinnie and Mary converse normally in a shout, one finds them all over New York, they are what Italians call carfone, people lower than the lowest peasant. The page after page of upper case come across, finally, as an irritant to the reader: they are meant to be so. Note, also, the change in sentence structure and length from the beginning to the end of "Tralala," coinciding with the change in Tralala' s fortunes, from isolated events of the sordid, to the overwhelming wave of bestiality which her life becomes, no one thing differentiated from the other, a total degradation, homogeneous. None of these things are instances of "style," per se. They are organic to the "content," both narrative and emotional, of the stories. Selby's exactitude of knowledge concerning the aesthetic tastes of his characters has already been touched on, and one may add another instance found in "Queen" where Georgette reads, in the light of flickering black candles, The Raven. What else?

Edward Dorn, writing of Burroughs, says that he is an author who considers his readers a city dump. I would suggest that Rechy thinks of his readers as yokels, Gelber, perhaps, as those folks around the corner who don't know that on the avenue people are turning on. I select these writers because they stand as three of the noted "tough" writers of the moment. Selby may be placed against them with no loss to him. His is an art which might be described as an attempt to get beyond the concerns of these men with the world of the sordid, to the world of the sordid, an art which registers the emotional mutilation possible (and probable) in a segment of society where all values have been totally corrupted in the name of progress and law and order. It is not a world of romantic criminality, nor is it a world of the consciously alienated hipster. It is a world where crime is a fact of everyday life, not an event which one nervously partakes in, "beat" style, turning the overt criminal act into an "assault" upon the state, or the prevailing "current of opinion"—crime not as an instance of epater le bourgeois, but crime as an instance of, say, belching—ho, hum, it's Tuesday, let's go break a couple of heads. The innuendoes of the work seem to imply that none of this is remediable, given the context of society in which this subculture functions. I'd guess that Selby thinks of his reader as someone who might possibly want to know the truth about a real, living hell which exists in our own time, in the city of New York. He has succeeded in professing this truth with great artistic distinction, without patronization, without romanticizing its facets: most important, he has done it without egoistic remonstrations or possible "solutions." He is, in my mind, one of the most powerful prose writers now working in America, as well as the best commentator on the urban poor since the Crane of "Maggie" and "George's Mother." In short, an artist of unmistakable brilliance and authenticity.

Stephen Donadío (essay date 1965)

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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 strike and its effects on Harry Black, shop steward and a union tool, Black's brutishness is conceived as an aspect of his martyrdom to his shrill wife's tyrannical vagina. This will hardly do. Nor can one be convinced that his surprising switch to homosexuality is the likely beginning of a humanizing process, much less a plausible although forbidden cure for larger social ills. In "The Queen Is Dead" (full of John Rechy, down to the coy "he(she)" play with pronouns), the premises are inescapable: Georgette, the only sympathetic character, is maimed and brutalized by vicious stud society.

In this nightmarish world of fatal gang-bangs and stompkillings, heterosexual relations seem synonymous with violence, frustration, and deceit, while holding hands and listening to "the Bird blowing love" are pleasures reserved for a sky-high aristocracy, the carriers of "class" and aspiring affection. Mr. Selby's moral insight into Brooklyn extends no further than his veiled insistence on the certainly debatable suggestion that to be human is to be homosexual. Last Exit to Brooklyn reads like the dark side of True Confessions: "I love him Mother. I love him and want him." In our recent second-rate fiction, The Good Fairy has become quite as much a commonplace as The Good Prostitute once was.

Charles D. Peavy (essay date 1969)

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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 exists, but that it has become, as he says, "an ambiguous thing in our society." In a letter to me (1967), Selby wrote: "we continually avoid the responsibility of our actions. We rationalize, qualify, and if that doesn't work we use Freud to justify immoral acts. We have even gotten to the point of eliminating our conscience that way. Obviously the results must be one only ignoble, but catastrophic." 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. In the letter mentioned above he told me "I try to put the reader through an emotional experience rather than just tell him a story. I feel that if I am successful he will be forced to think in spite of himself and the book. He may hate the book and think it loathsome, but if I succeed he will be haunted by what is in the book."

The sin most frequently attacked by Selby in Last Exit to Brooklyn is pride. In "Landsend," for instance, pride is a cause of alienation and unhappiness. It caused the young Negro woman, Lucy, to be a scolding parent and a nagging, frigid wife. Extremely caste-conscious, she wishes to be accepted by the "nice white girl" who lives in her building, and refrains from even speaking to the other people in the project. She makes her sons miserable by not letting them play with the "spick" children in the neighborhood, and by constantly punishing them for acting like "ragamuffins." She nags her husband about his speech, and, frustrated that he will not move from the housing project until he finishes TV-Radio repair school, she turns her back to him in bed. In another of the vignettes in "Landsend" the Negro Abraham, a husband and the father of five children, begrudges his wife enough money to run their home. While his children suffer from malnutrition, he spends all his money on the upkeep of his Cadillac, his "processed" hair, and his women. The most fully developed treatments of the theme of pride, however, are contained in "The Queen is Dead," "Tralala," and "Strike." In these stories, pride brings about total degradation and death to the protagonists.

Selby has said that almost all of life and its emotions can not only be found in the Bible, but are "summed up" there. Each of the stories in Last Exit to Brooklyn is prefaced by a Biblical quotation. The quotation which preceeds "The Queen is Dead" is Genesis 1:27, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." The quotation from Genesis in this context is ironic, for George Hanson [Georgette] and her "gay" friends have parodied God's act of creation by crossing over to the other sex. Georgette takes pride in being an overt homosexual and transvestite, and feels "intellectually and esthetically superior to those (especially women) who weren't gay (look at all the great artists who were fairies!)." Georgette's pride is paralleled by that of Vinnie, whose constant reiteration of the masculine code of virility is really a facade hiding his own bisexuality. Georgette respects Vinnie's pride, and is careful not to wound it publicly by a too aggressive pursuit of Vinnie. "It wasn't fear of being rebuked or hit by him (that could be developed in her mind into a lovers quarrel ending in a beautiful reconciliation) that restrained her, but she knew if done in the presence of his friends .. . his pride would force him to abjure her completely and then there would not only be no hope, but, perhaps, no dreams."

Vinnie's pride is an important foil to Georgette's own self-deluding hubris. When he was fifteen Vinnie was proud of his car theft and his pugilistic abilities, and when he was sixteen his pride caused him to be sentenced to jail. Apprehended for car theft, Vinnie had knocked the two arresting officers down the steps of the stationhouse. "Possibly he might have gotten away, but he went to the Greeks and displayed the gash in his head to his friends telling them how he dumped the two cops." Vinnie was later proud of the time he spent in jail and of the more notorius hoods he met there; "the glory of having known someone killed by the police during a stickup was the greatest event of his life and a memory he cherished as would an aging invalid, at the end of a disappointing life, a winning touchdown made at the end of the final game of the season." Most importantly, Vinnie is proud of the perverted love Georgette feels for him, for it gives him status within his peer group. He wanted them to be certain that "Georgette was in love with him and that he could have her anytime he wanted to, . . . feeling superior to the others because he knew how Steve who had been killed by the bulls, and because Georgette was smart and could snow them with words . . . (mistaking in his dull, never to be matured mind, her loneliness for respect of his strength and virility)." The self-delusion caused by Georgette's pride (her belief that Vinnie will succumb to her seductiveness as a "queen"), and the callowness caused by Vinnie's pride are seen when Georgette struggles to regain her composure after being stabbed in the leg. "She looked at Vinnie with pleading in her eyes trying to regain her composure. . . . hoping to gain his sympathy, looking tenderly as a lover taking irrevocable leave, and Vinnie laughed thinking how much she looked like a dog beggin for a bone."

The sexual aberrations of Georgette and her "girl" friends (Goldie, Lee, Camille) are mirrored by Vinnie and the boys in his gang (Harry, Malfie, Sal), for if they are homosexual transvestites (queens), the latter group of men are bisexuals who, under certain conditions, may be had for the price of liquor and narcotics. Georgette's group prides itself in false feminity, constant preening, and catty observations about the dress of rival queens. Vinnie's group, on the other hand, revels in an exaggerated maleism which is as perverted as the feminine airs assumed by the transvestites. For instance, at the wild party at Goldie's house Georgette offers her glass of gin to Vinnie, but Vinnie refuses because "the code forbids drinking from the same glass as a fag." Nevertheless, within the hour Vinnie is to have sexual relations with two of the queens (pederasty with Lee and fellatio with Georgette). Yet Vinnie can do this without any loss of caste with the gang, for he is still subscribing to the rigid code of machismo, which allows him to be the active partner in pederasty and the passive partner in fellatio and still maintain his status as a "straight," or normal male. The pride of Vinnie's peer group allows them to enjoy homosexual relations without any danger to their male ego, for they always cover up any pleasure they might derive from such acts in the ridicule, hostility, and cruelty they direct toward the overt homosexuals.

The death of Georgette is a masterful blend of narcotic delirium and Georgette's persistent desire for romance, beauty, and love. The long paragraph in parenthesis on page 77 is a flashback of memory which epitomizes the sordidness of her life. She remembers with revulsion a scene with the "john," and she repels it with a fantasied image of the present, which she reconstructs within the drama of Italian opera. In the beginning of the story, when Georgette is pursuing Vinnie at the Greek's, she knows that she can have him for a few dollars. She does not want him on a business basis, however, for that would make her his "john." What Georgette wants is love, or something that her pride can twist into the resemblance of love. This desire underlies Georgette's desperate attempt to convince herself that Vinnie did not perform pederasty with Lee, a rival queen, and that her own act of fellatio with Vinnie is beautiful, an act of love. Georgette imagines Vinnie's penis as a rose which he has presented to her as her lover, but the fecal odor and Vinnie's crude instructions obtrude into Georgette's fantasy of a tender love scene. Georgette injects an overdose of morphine into her arms and legs, and as the chill creeps into her extremities, she fantasies herself and Vinnie in the scene that closes the first act of Puccini's La Boheme. In this scene a candle carried by Mimi is extinguished by a gust of wind in Rodolpho's room, and Mimi drops her key. Rodolpho helps Mimi search for the key, and in the dark their hands chance to meet. "Vinnie .. . yes, yes. Vincennti. Vincennti d' Amore," murmurs Georgette as she imagines Vinnie in the role of Rodolpho, singing his great aria, "Che gelida mania" (Your tiny hand is cold). ". . . yes, yes. Cold, O my beloved," replies Georgette, and pictures herself singing "Mi Chiamano Mimi, " Mimi's candle causes Georgette to recall the candle light by which she read Poe's "The Raven," while in the background the recorded music of Charlie ("The Bird") Parker played. The candle light, the poetry reading, and the music had moved Vinnie to an unaccustomed tenderness, and the effect the scene had on the drugged members of the party caused Georgette to exult in her pride ("The guys were staring and Vinnie seemed so close she could feel the sweat on his face and even Lee was listening and watching her read and they all knew she was there; they all knew she was THE QUEEN"). This recollection is projected into her dream fantasy of Italian opera: "Si, A candle. Soft candle light. . . and I will read to you." In the opera, Rodolpho and Mimi stand in a window in a flood of moonlight, and in a rapturous duet ("O soave fanciulla") proclaim their love for each other, then passionately kiss. Just before Vinnie left her Georgette had wondered "Why didn't he kiss me? If he would only let me kiss him"; in the fantasied scene from the opera, Vinnie and Georgette (as Rodolpho and Mimi) embrace. With her dream of love shattered, the degraded queen dies, still grasping at her histrionic fantasies of beauty and dignity. Georgette's death is signalled by the closing line of Leoncavallo's tragic opera Pagliacci"La commedia e finita" (The comedy is ended), which merges with Mimi's death song "Sono andati."

Georgette's pride results in a perversion of God's creative act (alluded to in the quotation from Genesis that prefaces "The Queen is Dead"). Another kind of pride is illustrated by the protagonist in "Tralala," for her pride in her body and in her abilities as a prostitute take her beyond any possible redemption (significantly, the quotations from the Song of Solomon which preface "Tralala" are the readings for the feast day of Mary Magdalene). Both Georgette's homosexuality and Tralala's debased heterosexuality preclude the possibility of love in their relations with other people. "Tralala" orignially appeared in The Provincetown Review, and was subsequently involved in an obscenity trial. Allen Tate, who defended the story in Provincetown, said that the moral of the story is that "the wages of sin is death." "Tralala" is more a portrayal of hubris than a condemnation of prostitution, however, for Tralala, like Georgette, exhibits a pride which is both selfdeluding and self-destructive. She is proud of her enormous breasts and the fact that she can get any man she wants. "If a girl liked one of the guys or tried to get him for any reason Tralala cut in. For kicks. The girls hated her." She goes about the cheap waterfront bars, pushing out her chest, and enjoying her success with drunken servicemen. But "no drunken twobit sailor or doggie for her. Oh no. Ya bet ya sweetass no. With her clothes and tits?"

Ironically, Tralala's fortune changes when a lonely army officer offers her love rather than money before his embarkment for the war overseas. The magic talisman of her breasts never seems to work for her after this, and she grows "dirtier and scabbier." She can no longer compete with the flashier prostitutes in the Broadway bars. Her fall is rapid, for soon even the 8th Avenue bars "with their hustlers, pushers, pimps, queens and wouldbe thugs kicked her out and the inlaid linoleum turned to wood and then was covered with sawdust and she hung over a beer in a dump on the waterfront, snarling and cursing. . . ." Ultimately she returns to her old haunts in Brooklyn, still clinging to the conviction that with her breasts (the symbol of her pride) she "could always makeout." Tralala's narcissistic pride in her body and her arrogant assertion of her sexual prowess leads to her destruction. On the day of her death she compulsively tries to steal another woman's man in a bar. The woman warns her to stay away, but Tralala, primarily to regain her status, continues in her endeavors to arouse the man. All else failing, she pulls up her sweater and bounced her bare breasts on the palms of her hands. Then she "slowly turned around bouncing them hard on her hands exhibiting her pride to the bar," challenging all the men present to test her sexuality. What happens next is inevitable; the meretricious Circe, after turning the drunken men into swine, copulates with some forty or fifty of them in an empty lot near the bar. Tralala is proud to the end, and during the entire orgy she swills beer and yells that she has "the biggest goddam tits in the world." The final horror of her death represents the total debasement of her body—the ultimate mortification of the flesh. Lying in a pool of beer, blood, urine, and semen, Tralala pays for her pride.

Like Tralala, Harry Black, the protagonist in "Strike," is destroyed by an arrogant and self-deluding pride. Harry was "the worst lathe operator of the more than 1,000 men working in the factory" and a petty functionary in the outer clique of the union. His egotism, however, prevents him from perceiving the truth about himself and alienates him from society. At home he is a failure as a husband and father, at work he is despised by both labor and management, and in the homosexual world to which he ultimately descends he is looked upon with contempt and loathing. So self-deluded is Harry, however, that he never suspects that his pride makes him the prey of people who use him for their own ends. The neighborhood gang uses him as a source of free beer and money, yet he mistakes their actions for friendship. The union leaders look upon Harry as a "patsy," an irreplacable scapegoat who is the "best diversionary action they had" in their relations with both management and the union membership, yet Harry mistakes their maneuvering of him for genuine interest and admiration. And, saddest of all, Harry becomes the "john" or paying client of homosexuals, mistakenly believing their prostituted lust is love (when Harry's money runs out near the end of the strike, his lover leaves him).

Ultimately, Harry becomes an overt homosexual, but his one unsuccessful attempt on a neighborhood boy leads to his public degradation. Harry has always defied authority figures, such as the various company bosses, and it is characteristic that he defy God himself when, in his pain and humiliation, he hurls his blasphemous and obscene invective toward heaven. Behind this obloquy, however, is not only Harry's arrogance and pride, but also the necessity for him to believe that God, too, is a homosexual. Blinded by his own blood, his arms ripped from their sockets, Harry attempts to raise his battered head in a gesture of proud defiance.

Similarly, Georgette and Tralala go to their deaths defiantly. Georgette dies from a self-inflicted overdose of morphine rather than admit that her life is sordid, that her love is a lie; Tralala dies as a result of her defiant challenge to copulate with all the males in the neighborhood. The protagonists of "The Queen is Dead," "Tralala," and "Strike" are all victims of hubris who fall because of a narcissistic pride or self-love which is also self-destrusctive.

Richard A. Wertime (essay date 1974)

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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 properties were somewhat overlooked, with the result that, today, some significant things remain to be said.

I am interested in exploring the dynamic qualities of Last Exit, in examining, more specifically, the disturbing sort of power which its most violent stories generate. I believe that this power 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 simpleminded, 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.

From the novel's opening story, "Another Day Another Dollar," the problem of fit punishment is a central concern. Like "Tralala" and "Strike," this story ends with a terrible punishment that literally rips the victim apart. The victim, here, is a soldier, and the beating he receives is both surprising in its savagery and grimly logical in nature, if by implication only. Selby's choice of title is a disarming tactic: "Another Day Another Dollar" suggests the dullness of daily plodding, but what follows is hardly routine in any ordinary sense. Though disarming, it also is appropriate: the "routine," here, is the vitiating tedium of urban ghetto life as lived by the spiritually desolate, who in this case specifically are a group of young men who hang out at an all-night restaurant called the Greeks. The Greeks is a shabby sort of latter-day agora whose proprietor Alex (as diminished in classical stature, we suppose, as his establishment) enjoys a quasi-parental relationship with the "boys" in question, toward whom, by turns, he is indulgent and stern. He chides their lack of purpose, he warns that they may have to pay for their criminal activities; but he also at the same time gives them preferential treatment. He grumbles about what little profit they bring him as businessman, though he reserves for their selection half the slots in his jukebox.

The profit the boys pursue is of a rather deadlier sort. Crime for them is a world of play, a game—as indeed is life generally. They are brutal sensationalists who live strictly for kicks, kicks they administer their victims in a horribly literal way. The action in Selby's stories often doubles back upon itself, and in this as in other stories, the iterated action is violent and also "playful": twice in the course of the story there is a scene of festive brutalizing, each scene followed by a celebration of sorts. The two scenes are also more subtly connected: when the boys beat the soldier at the end of the story, standing around in a circle booting him into unconsciousness, they are reenacting in a literally and figuratively "lower" form the game of "mum" they have played a bit earlier. "Mum," too, involves a victim in a circle; it loses interest for the group because the man who is "it" (a man named Harry, probably but not certainly the Harry Black of "Strike") cannot spot an assailant and thereby free himself from the center. He is punched to the verge of physical collapse, and the group goes into the Greeks and engages in horseplay in the bathroom. This kind of "victory party" also follows the soldier's beating (as it will the crucifixion of Harry Black later) in whose immediate aftermath the group remains "mum" when questioned by police. They are silent about the truth, and deflect the cops' inquiries by pretending that one of their "wives," a moronic whore named Rosie, has been the object of an insult. Cowardly mendacity joins their clutch of unpleasant qualities.

As is clear, I trust, from this much, we are intended to have no liking for these characters at Alex's: they are stupid swaggering hoods of the classic 50's variety, forever swearing and boasting, slicking their hair back with annoying fastidiousness, inspecting their clothes, cars and women with about the same degree of interest. As specific individuals they are virtually interchangeable, and this lack of distinguishing qualities further augments our antipathy toward them: they are a predatory pack, so regularized and homogenized as to be, at least by implication, equally expendible. Moreover, everything points to their being latently homosexual if not actively so: their concern with grooming, their adolescent groupishness, their scatological horseplay, their sadistic capabilities. They are Greek in the least memorable of moral senses, and their father-figure Alex is likewise less than noble: his choice of surrogate sons hardly speaks well for his own moral character.

But while the boys are clearly villainous, they are not exactly villains in the ordinary sense of clear antagonist to the good. The soldier himself has little in the way of redeeming personal decency, and we are sympathetic at the end of the story not so much toward him as toward the suffering he experiences—no one deserves to be beaten like that; punishment is one thing, torture is another; the beating he takes goes very far beyond the bounds of his just deserts. But Selby's narrative tone does the soldier no special favors, and lest we grow too sympathetic there is always the story's epigraph:

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. (Ecc. 3:19)

This sober bit of distinction-levelling Scripture has about it that large authority which the Bible always carries, and it is hard not to see a significant conjunction between the Ecclesiastical chorus and Selby's own moral stance. The epigraph, clearly, is prejudicial to the soldier: our commiseration with him—if only he had known what sort of people he was dealing with!—is tainted by a feeling that he has been more than merely ignorant; that he has been stupid and imprudent in inviting trouble upon himself. His incaution becomes by implication a matter of moral failure, and what happens is "just" in being the grimly logical consequence of his acting as he does in such a hazardous situation.

"Another Day Another Dollar" is not, taken singly, so ambivalent a story. I wish to emphasize this point. If one knew it and none of the novel's other stories, one would probably find it odd, if indeed not repellant, to hear the proposition stated that the soldier deserved his beating—even if only in a recessive sense. Compared to "Tralala" and "Strike," the dramatic situation in "Another Day Another Dollar" appears more dramatically objective and impersonal: the soldier might have entered some place other than the Greeks, and his chancing upon it was a simple coincidence. But as the novel moves forward the evidence builds: "Another Day Another Dollar," "Tralala" and "Strike" are all governed by very similar dynamics of self-destruction, dynamics which dramatize the punisher's role as having endopsychic dimensions. What makes this so unnerving is that Selby's dramatic stages—from delectation to commission to the enduring of a terrible punishment—are at once in strict accordance with the talion law and the sequential components of psychotic terror as experienced by the paranoic and masochist. In each of these stories, moreover, the protagonist is responsible for inviting the trouble upon himself, succumbing imprudently to a sexual desire that is loosed by excessive alcohol and translated into action in a dangerous social context; and as the novel moves forward the punishments and victims become more suited to each other, more intricately interrelated. By the time we have reached the conclusion of "Strike," we feel very strongly—if indeed still only subliminally—that the public dramatic action is a playingout as well of Harry's private psychosis. "Tralala" has been an effective bridge in this regard, looking forward and backward to Harry's fate and the drunken soldier's, with the significant difference that in Tralala's case the ministers of vengeance are not quite the same. That group is larger and more diverse than the group from the Greeks, though the two overlap; but it is important to Selby's handling of male homosexuality that the two groups be distinguishable: by segregating the participants in Tralala's demise from the stories of all-male violence. Selby reinforces the psychic implications which the all-male stories carry.

But such diversities aside—and this is my major point here—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, as I would now like to show. 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. Harry sees himself as a man being hunted. Early in the story we are told of a dream he has, a recurrent dream that dramatizes a conception of himself that is so negative as to be, by virtually anyone's standards, a psychotic self-image:

The Harpies swooped down on Harry and in the darkness under their wings he could see nothing but their eyes: small, and filled with hatred, their eyes laughing at him, mocking him as he tried to evade them, knowing he couldnt and that they could toy with him before they slowly destroyed him. He tried turning his head but it wouldnt move. He tried and tried until it rolled back and forth but still the eyes glared and mocked and the gigantic wings beat faster and faster and the wind whirled around Harry and his body chilled and he could sense their large sharp beaks and feel the tips of feathers as they brushed his face. He tried to slide down the rock but no matter how often he did he was still on the top with the wind whirling and the Harpies screeching, screeching and above the roar of the wind and the screeching he could hear his flesh being ripped from his belly, could hear the sharp tearing sound prick its way into his ears and then he heard his screams and the Harpies slowly, very slowly tore bits of flesh from his belly then slowly tugged as the long strips of flesh were pulled from his body and he yelled and rolled over and over and leaped up and ran, tripped and tumbled down the rock yet he was still on top of the rock and the Harpies still mocked him as they tore the flesh from his belly, his chest, and scraped their beaks on his ribs and suddenly thrust their beaks into his eyes and plucked them from their sockets and he heard the plop, plop of his eyes leaving his head and the screeching of the Harpies increased until he no longer could hear his own screams and he kicked and punched at them yet his body refused to move and all he could do was lie still as they once again, and again, over and over started ripping the flesh from his belly and chest, scraping his ribs and once more plucking the eyes from his head

and he was alone on a street looking turning slowly around in a circle, looking, looking at nothing. Everything was endless in every direction until there were walls that seemed to be moving on an eccentric rod and the walls came closer together, still rolling in half circles and Harry still turned in a circle and the walls came closer together and Harry yelled and started crying yet it was silent not even the walls making a sound as they approached each other and Harry ran until he hit a wall and was in the middle of the diminishing room and he could feel the slate smoothness of the walls as they touched his arms, the back of his head, his nose, and the wall slowly crushed him

and his eyes rolled and bounced up the hill and Harry stumbling after them trying to find them, picking up stones, pebbles and burrs and trying to force them in the empty sockets and he spit out the stones and yelled as the burrs tore the already bleeding sockets and he continued to stumble up the hill and occasionally the eyes would stop and they would look at each other with a gigantic stare and wait until Harry almost touched them then continued to roll up the hill and Harry jammed two more burrs into the sockets and screamed as they ripped the lids and he screamed louder and louder as he twisted the burrs trying to get them out, his bloodied hands preventing him from getting a firm grip on them and his screams were louder and louder until he finally did scream and he sprang up in bed and opened his eyes waiting years for the wall and the chest of drawers to be recognized.

Quite aside from the evocations this dream will have for the literate reader—Prometheus and Oedipus, The Waste Land and The Pit and the Pendulum all come to mind instantly—there is a wealth of evidence here concerning the nature of Harry's disturbance. This three-part nightmare is both reiterative and progressive: implicit in each of the episodes is Harry's self-hatred, his vision of himself as helpless prey to malicious forces, to powers of affliction greater than his powers of self-protection. The final segment is the most harrowing because it brings Harry closest to the truth of his situation, which is that he contains within himself both the afflicting powers and the victimized self; the dream's first two segments, despite their horror, are less painful for the reason that they separate so sharply the predatory forces and the object they pursue. The projection onto externals—the Harpies, the unseen manipulators of the inclosing walls—of the selfcondemning powers is the more implicitly comforting the farther back we go toward the beginning of the sequence. We notice, for example, that while the Harpies tear Harry's flesh, while he cannot escape his centrality at the top of the rock, he is described as hearing his flesh in the act of being torn away, which suggests an almost anesthetic disembodiment, or removal of mind from the physical experience. Nor do the Harpies assault his most vulnerable of parts; though they flay him with savagery and even pluck out his eyes—this too he hears—they confine themselves mainly to his chest and belly.

The second phase of the dream maintains the separation between afflictor and afflicted with lessening success. The utter isolation, the eerie silence, the circles in which Harry and the closing walls turn—these details all suggest, however recessively, a more substantial notion of an endopsychic conflict than the previous episode; and while the tormentors are still objective, outside his identifiable self, they are, again, invisible, and the torment they inflict is a strikingly obvious metaphor for the terrible binding of the natural physical self which results from Harry's repressiveness. I think of Laing's description of "implosion" in The Divided Self, the progressively tighter binding of the schizophrenic's responses, which, if carried far enough, can result in "petrification," the literal sensation of being turned into stone.

The third of the nightmare's episodes is an astonishing piece of dream-work: it articulates not only Harry's paranoiac sense of being constantly "watched"—his punishment at the end of the story takes place at the foot of a billboard—but also his bewilderment, his inability to correlate action with judgment. The two eyes (I's) that stare at each other are in effect "crossed"—set against each other unnaturally in an expression of stupidity. His blinding, I take it, is suggestive of castration also, his inadvertent self-maiming suggestive of not just emasculation but vaginal intrusion, the stuffing of stones in his sockets being a figurative kind of rape. To substantiate this further we might go outside the dream, to Harry's treatment of his wife; in making love to Mary, he uses his genitals as instruments of brutality, committing not so much intercourse as a counteroffensive foray against the enemy's camp. And at the beginning of the story he has a vengeful fantasy that is likewise intrusive; again his wife is his object: "He wished to krist he could take the sounds and shove them up her ass. Take the goddam kid and jam it back up her snatch." The repudiation of birth, of infant ingestion (the sounds of the baby sucking on his bottle) are parallel to Harry's repudiation of his "in-sight." The pebbles that go in his sockets, interestingly, come out his mouth, and when he awakes in a state of terror he is indeed slow to regain his normal vision.

It might seem somewhat odd to begin describing Harry Black by going straight to his unconscious, bypassing the more concrete details that are used to introduce him. But Selby himself does more or less the same: this dream of Harry's stands hard by the beginning of the story, and I believe it is there for several tactical reasons. It serves as a kind of induction, a shorthand forewarning, almost, that we are leaving the realm of balanced perception and descending to that darkened arena where dream-state and waking-state are chillingly interchangeable, and where, as a consequence, we may not carry with us our conventional expectations about the way people act. Harry Black is an unpleasant human being. He is coarse, stupid and brutal, unredeemed by talents or feelings or insights of any sort. Selby has (again) made clear enough in his Biblical epigraph that we may begin the story in a state of readied antipathy:

I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding;

And, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down. (Prov. 24:30, 31)

And, in our opening glance at Harry, the antipathy is solidified. But it is a general rule in fiction that stupidity, like self-pity, is hard for the reader to tolerate unless there coexists with it some other more interesting trait, or a trait which makes it interesting as part of a larger combination. The compensating mechanism in the case of Harry Black is the depth, the intensity, the complexity of his dullness. Harry is simple-minded, but he is not at all simple. And it just might be part of Selby's larger purpose here to encourage our dismissiveness in order to get beyond it quickly: yes, Harry is a clod; now, what else might we discover?

In the first glimpse we have of him, he is concerned with his son's penis. His confusion about sex—his own sexuality specifically—is swiftly and painfully established. He is terrified of discovery, of being labelled a homosexual, and when his wife plays with the baby, it bothers him so much because he sees himself in her place. He also sees his wife as his own mother-figure, which, by implication, makes him interchangeable with his son. Harry, in other words, is both subject and object of his homosexual impulses—a not-so-curious form of autoerotic narcissism, given his self-hatred, for which the narcissism compensates. This connection, too, awaits the story's further development. But we need no further development to see that Harry Black is mightily confused, a man both physically and mentally wracked by psychological displacements and misidentifications. Harry confuses many things—the roles of father and son, the functions of anus and vagina, the natures of fantasy and action. Eyes are male genitals, eye-sockets mouths and female genitals. And so on and so forth. It is hardly a wonder that Harry Black is tense. Nor is it any wonder that the epigraph refers to a vineyard's crumbling wall; in Harry's tormented psyche all the normal boundaries are down.

The remainder of the story is a rich set of variations on the general theme of childishness. The dramatic heart of "Strike" is senseless, self-destructive rebellion, and the rebelliousness is not exclusive to the person of Harry Black. There is no more preeminence of man above beast here than there was in "Another Day Another Dollar" at the outset of the novel. But the homogenization of characters is more functional in "Strike"—or at least more vividly utilized. The persistent negativism of the narrative perspective encourages my belief that all the characters in the story reflect upon, and in effect dramatize, Harry's psychosis. The larger social conflicts with which the story deals—workers vs. management, rankand-file vs. union bosses, picketers vs. cops—are objective dramatic realities, certainly, but they can also be understood (and to my mind are more interesting) as rehearsals of Harry's psychosexual self-destruction, around which central action all the other actions turn.

And Harry's self-destruction is dramatized most explicitly in his relationship with the boys who hang out at the Greeks. Their function has altered subtly since the novel's opening story: in "Another Day Another Dollar," they play a role analogous to the "scourge of God," that figure in myth and literature whose wickedness, though repellant, turns out in the end to be congruent with God's design. They can take no moral credit for their beating of the soldier; their action has sanction, if indeed it has any, by virtue of an authority which is quite detached from them, and of which they and their victim are entirely unaware. In "Strike," on the other hand, by clear progressive stages, the boys become objectifications of Harry Black's conscience. They are no more brutally punitive in their physical treatment of Harry than Harry is vengeful toward himself psychologically. They "harry" him, in effect, at his own invitation, and their crucifixion of him is in his mind totally just.

How this works is a fairly complex matter, and I would like to take some care in spelling it out. As Harry's dream has shown us earlier, his sense of himself is overwhelmingly negative—that is, his sense of himself as he is. Or as he thinks he is; the objective observer would agree that he has very real problems—his perceptions in this matter are by no means all wrong—but the observer would also disagree on two significant issues: the first, that in reality he is as bad as all that; the second, that his strategy for correcting his deficiencies has any constructive usefulness. For 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—the union big-shot who is free with his money, well-respected by his men, tough with his opponents, a smash-hit with the ladies—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.

In Freudian language, the ego ideal has its residence, figuratively speaking, within the bounds of the superego, another word for "conscience" as I am using it here. Now at first glance it would seem that one's idealized self-image is a friend to one's ego: it is what one strives for; it evokes such standard virtues as diligence, persistence, self-determination. The ego ideal might seem, moreover, to be a kind of big brother, like an adolescent's "hero"—revered and respectfully worshipped. And indeed the boys from the Greeks perform this function for Harry. Where he is a chump, a dunce and a fall-guy, they are selfaggrandizing and wily, effortlessly skillful at the business of self-preservation. Harry, let us note, is the one who actively seeks out their company, not they his. They are members of the neighborhood, at home, "in," sufficient; and Harry wants them to be his admirers. In fact he is their admirer, and while he wields his purchasing-power (in the form of union vouchers) like so much muscle, he is submissive to them, obedient, ultracompliant. And the boys very gradually preempt that purchasing power to their own selfish use, reducing Harry effectively to the status of their errand-boy.

Thus, more is less. 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.

Harry, of course, cannot see this reality. Ending the story in blindness, immersed in psychic darkness, he is cognizant of nothing but the Tightness of his destruction. Selby has brought Harry to this moment of total defeat by a sequence of canny stages, each with its psychic implications. The boys begin encroaching on Harry's mental territory just as his self-destruction begins to unfold in earnest. A full third of the story is over before they first appear. It is a moment at which the effects of Harry's hard drinking are beginning to show in his tenuous mental stability: in a dream-like passage that records his growing alienation from himself and others, we see Harry in his office in a state of utter solitude. He feels time winding around him like the coils of a python, and as he slips into a stupor that is almost catatonic in nature, he feels the panic and emptiness beginning to descend. His beer keg is empty—not even a hint of foam is left—and without this opiate he is helpless to see or move. In this semi-waking state he reminds us of his nightmare, whose second segment, we recall, depicts him stranded in such solitude, roaming in aimless circles as the walls begin closing in.

This passage in Harry's office occurs between, and occupies all the space between, his first two visits to Alex's establishment. The psychic avengers, in other words, take active shape just when Harry feels the need for them. At first they are an entirely undifferentiated group of "neighborhood guys." They become more discrete as they grow more ominous, more integral to the process of Harry's decay. Having esconced themselves in his office and made a lackey of him, they insinuate themselves into the workings of the strike by blowing up a truck that has dared to cross the picket line—an act that foreshadows the ending of the story where the picket-line, implicitly, is the social tabu against pederasty which Harry is punished for crossing. It also looks back to that sadistic game of "mum," in which Harry figured as victim earlier. The episode with the truck, for that matter, is not so very different from Harry's own savage fantasies of revenge on authorityfigures, his wife, the cops, the company management. It is also reminiscent of a remarkable encounter Harry has with a queen named Ginger, who locks Harry's hand in the "crotch" of her elbow and, in effect unmanning him by causing him paralyzing pain, reduces him to a state of utter confusion like the state we have seen him in in his office earlier. Harry gets the punishment he wishes on others—like Tralala, whose fate, several times over, is rehearsed in her own brutal behavior.

We might create a parallel, then, between Harry's three-part nightmare and the shape of "Strike" in general. In the story as in the dream, the divided parts of Harry—the suffering self and the punishing self, the prey and predators—are set on a collision course that runs toward disaster. Both courses are nightmarish, and Harry, given his mental state, can awaken from neither, reality. But we must also take account of the fact that the predators in his dream begin as mythic female figures; whereas his afflictors at the end of the story are male, not female. The problem involves the nature of Harry's homosexuality. We cannot say why he is so fearful of women, but it is safe to say, I think, that his fear is largely projective. He has difficulty coping with his own sexual impulses, he guards himself against them by means of counter-offensive anger—and he works on the presumption that others do likewise, most notably his wife. He dreads the vaginal pit: its purpose is to drown him. Feminine passivity in male homosexuals, however, is reassuring to Harry because he recognizes intuitively that its purpose is to placate, to disarm aggression, and thus reduce anxiety. He can play the stud with drag queens without being fearful of drowning, without having to worry about counteroffensives. What he does not see, ironically, is that the homosexual's feminine posture may be a defense against, not others' aggressions, but his own massive anger. Such is the case with Ginger, who is so filled with rage that he resorts to being a woman in order to get away with hostile acts. The strategy works: Harry is totally baffled by Ginger's display of superior manliness, whereas had Ginger aggressed as a man. Harry would doubtless have resisted.

But why must Harry punish himself for turning homosexual? His conscience, in the final analysis, is committed to hating sex, and can only endure the conflict to a certain point. As the story moves forward, and as the freedom from stress he enjoys in his homosexual relationships grows more and more appealing, his fundamental belief that sexuality is bad becomes alarmed by the threat which his new-found pleasures pose. Supermasculinity is the "proper" way to handle sex because it—such masculinity—is founded on hatred. And the illness proves more precious than the alternative of health, or, as in Harry's particular case, than a less stultifying illness. Pederasty is too safe: it violates the rule that sex must be dangerous. And so the psychotic character must preserve its sick foundations no matter what the cost, even if that cost is the crushing tyranny of self-hatred.

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. As Harry approaches his debacle with the boys from the Greeks, which is precipitated by his efforts to commit sodomy on a young boy, and which results in his submitting to an unbearably brutal beating, his spiritual impoverishment is driven home with every detail: he is alone and so drunk he cannot stand up; the walk underfoot is icy; the weather is dark and cold and his strike office is vacant. He is breathless and dependent on a lamp-post for support. Then comes the finale, in which Harry, quite literally, is crucified on a billboard, his sins and his punishment thus made known to the world:

A couple of the guys picked him up and stretched his arms across and around one of the crossbars of the sign and hung on his arms with all their weight and strength untili Harrys arms were straining at the shoulder sockets, threatening to snap, and they took turns punching his stomach and chest and face until both eyes were drowned with blood, then a few of the guys joined the two pulling on his arms and they all tugged until they heard a snap and then they twisted his arms behind him almost tying them in a knot. . . .

Harry lay still, sobbing. He cried and screamed a long loud AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA that was muffled as his face fell back into the dirt of the lot.

He tried to raise his head but could not. He could only turn it slightly so he rested on a cheek. He was able to open his eyes slightly, but was blinded by the blood. He yelled again. He heard the sound loud inside his head, GOD O GOD

he yelled but no sound came from his mouth. He heard his voice loud in his head but only a slight gurgle came from his lips. GOD GOD

YOU SUCK COCK

The moon neither noticed nor ignored Harry as he lay at the foot of the billboard, but continued on its unalterable journey. The guys washed up in the Greeks, drying their hands with toilet paper and tossing the wet wads at each other, laughing. It was the first real kick since blowing up the trucks. The first good rumble since they dumped that doggy. They sprawled at the counter and at the tables and ordered coffeeand.

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. 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.

This might seem like a minor sort of quarrel, but it becomes more significant if we compare the end of "Strike" to the end of "The Queen Is Dead." The protagonists of both stories are male homosexuals, and at the end of both stories they are mightily self-deceiving. Georgette's fate, of course, is very different from Harry Black's, but it is nonetheless interesting that Selby feels no need to prove Georgette wrong. Indeed, the authorial detachment at the end of "The Queen Is Dead" tremendously heightens our sympathy for Georgette—who, not coincidentally, is Selby's most positive character, a "hip queer" (Selby's description) who achieves a kind of purity in her transvestite love. Harry Black, too, has a moment of genuine tenderness in his homosexual love when he first goes to bed with Alberta. But it cannot last; Harry is too pretense-ridden for the tensions not to return.

I wish not to make overly much of this comparison, nor to imply however coyly that Selby's handling of Georgette shows a prejudicial preference for transvestite homosexuals. But the difference in the way in which he deals with Harry Black does raise questions about the authorial viewpoint generally. 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. Robert Rogers argues in his study The Double in Literature that we profit when a writer is no entirely conscious of the endopsychic elements imbedded in his work; for the less conscious of them he is, likewise the less conscious of them we are likely to be:

Psychological conflict probably makes the best drama. And psychological conflict portrayed in such a fashion that the reader achieves a maximum involvement or identification with the characters with a minimum awareness that he is involved . . . will give rise to an optimum amount of pleasurable tension between the reader's conscious response to the work and his unconscious immersion in it [Robert Rogers, A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature, 1970].

This pleasurable tension achieves its optimum for Rogers when, by one means or another, the central opposition between Good and Evil (to be found in any successful narrative work) is sufficiently disguised to have a powerful impact on the reader's unconscious while at the same time distancing the anxiety-causing elements enough to make them manageable. Last Exit, we might say, is in the minority in this respect; 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 some 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.

Robert Atwan (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of Song of the Silent Snow, in The New York Times Book Review, September 21, 1986, p. 26.

[In the review below, Atwan finds Song of the Silent Snow inferior to Selby's earlier work.]

Hubert Selby Jr. has created more Harrys than any writer since Shakespeare. They turn up in all of his novels: as the loudmouthed union thug fatally attracted to drag queens in Last Exit to Brooklyn, as the imagined sadistic rapist in The Room, as the sexually obsessive hero of The Demon and as an addict in search of the big payoff in Requiem for a Dream. It comes as no surprise that in this collection of stories we meet many more Harrys. Among them: a loser trying to impress a date; a salesman on a lucky streak; a Bowery bum; a middle-class suburbanite recovering from a nervous breakdown. Though they often resemble each other, they are seldom the same Harry. Mr. Selby has taken the theme of the double and given it a modern twist—a character who metastasizes new identities in story after story. Though the dark shadow of Edgar Allan Poe hangs over these split egos, the dominant emotion is not so much horror as panic. For Mr. Selby, panic seems to be the prevailing emotion of contemporary life, the nexus of blurred identity and sexual violence. Song of the Silent Snow fails to find the narrative grooves that made Last Exit to Brooklyn so memorable. The tone of the collection is dated; a few of the stories were published before Last Exit and several others sound like early efforts. Mr. Selby himself seems conscious of a stilted style. He writes of the shy amateur pianist in "The Musician": "There certainly was passion in his playing. And power. . . . but he also knew that there was a slight stiffness and imperfection of technique." Though the title story reaches for transcendent song, the volume doesn't approach the prose music of Mr. Selby's best fiction.

Jack Byrne (essay date 1988)

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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 Brooklyn's last exit. But the stories in Song of the Silent Snow, while being, in most cases, up to Selby's high level of characterization and authentic language, don't always engage the reader's sensibility so directly as to lock into his memory unforgettable pictures of tortured souls.

Notes for the Selby aficionado: Eight of the fifteen stories have a Harry as the protagonist, this in addition to Harry Black, Harry White, and Harry Goldfarb of the novels. The other seven stories take up the plight of Fat Phil, Roy in "The Sound," Harold in "I'm Being Good" and "The Musician," Morris in "A Little Respect," and, inevitably, two stories where the teller is anonymous. Perhaps this is the stuff that novels are made of. For just as that seminal/breakthrough novel Last Exit was not a typical novel, it is possible that Song of the Silent Snow, having in it the power "to stare the social and psychological realities of the second half of the twentieth century in the face," is not a typical collection of short stories. It just might be almost as good as Last Exit to Brooklyn.

Hubert Selby, Jr. with Allan Vorda (interview date 1992)

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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 worksparticularly Last Exit to Brooklyn—as well as his style and intent.]

[Vorda]: You were born, raised, and educated in Brooklyn. What effect did this environment have on your writing?

[Selby]: There is really no way of knowing for sure if any writer's environment has an effect on your writing. There is no way of determining that because you can't do a controlled experiment. I think one of the biggest influences of being born and raised in a city like New York is that it gave me a universal appreciation. A lot of people in Europe consider me European. I didn't understand why until I moved to Los Angeles. I can see why Los Angeles is really an American city whereas New York is very international. I think growing up in New York is the best gift you can have living in this country. My mind was opened to a lot of things I wouldn't have otherwise known. I believe the biggest influence of growing up in New York was that it made me very responsive to speech and the music that there is in speech. I write by ear and the music of speech fascinates me. I don't think you have that in the rest of the country. You don't have the incredible diversity of music you have in the speech of New York. It doesn't make any difference if someone's ethnic background is Greek, Italian, or Jewish, whereas if they live outside New York they would all sound flat like the Midwest. In New York you couldn't begin to describe the different flavors of speech. Consequently, I think the music of New York speech has been a big influence on my writing.

How did you develop your writing style, which sometimes resembles a stream-of-consciousness paper from a creative writing class?

That I wouldn't know, never having gone to school, praise God. It's hard to say exactly. We are never really aware of as much as we believe we are aware of because self-deception is part of the human condition. I think my writing style, as I've said, is a product of my fascination with speech and the music of speech. I am not too concerned with the physical environment but with what goes on inside a person. This is really important to me because I realize it is what goes on in our heads that creates the world we live in. So the stream-of-consciousness just comes naturally, I believe. I have, of course, read Joyce and have been influenced by him. I think every writer who has read Joyce has been influenced one way or another by his work. But it's the interior dialogue that we have with ourselves that really fascinates me and how it is reflected in our physical world. Maybe that is why my writing at times looks like it is a stream-of-consciousness.

I understand you contracted tuberculosis and spent three years in the hospital, had ten ribs cut out, lung problems, and asthma. How has the thought of death affected your writing and your outlook on life?

You spend 3 1/2 years in bed and it affects your life and everything that affects your life affects your work. I also believe that you don't understand life until you die or come close to dying. That may have a lot to do with the nature of my writing. Lying in bed also gives you a greater opportunity than usual to look inside yourself and find out exactly what's going on. I had never read a book until then. That's where it all started: reading and then a desire to write.

What writers influenced you?

There are a lot of writers I admire, but as to who influenced me it's hard to say. One of the reasons it's difficult is that when I started reading I read everybody at once which was a great advantage, because I didn't have to work under the influence of any writer. For example, I didn't have to write like Hemingway, but later on Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Hemingway certainly influenced me and, to a lesser degree, Mickey Spillane. There also seems to me a very close kinship to Celine in my work. I remember reading Thais by Anatole France. It just knocked me over and I'm sure that had a tremendous influence on me. William Saroyan, I remember, also knocked me out.

Obviously, James Joyce and especially William Carlos Williams. I have no way of knowing how much Williams influenced me, but he did, not the least of which is his use of the American language and his insistence on its rhythms. Isaac Babel was a tremendous influence. I also like Gilbert Sorrentino, Richie Price, Michael Stevens, and Joseph Ferrandino, who wrote a book about Vietnam called Firefight. I adore the work of Joseph Heller. Unfortunately, I don't get to read as much as I'd like, so I'm not too familiar with all the writing that is going on.

Do you see your writing as an extension of the Angry Young Men writers (such as Sillitoe and Osborne) out of England in the '50s?

I don't believe so. I haven't read them extensively. They were socially conscious people making a social statement. I am not.

Did you find it difficult to get your stories published in the beginning? Is it still hard to get published?

I never really tried to get published. I knew people who suggested I send it here or there. I followed their advice and got published in the Black Mountain Review and Provincetown Review. The same thing happened with the books.

I don't know whether I have more trouble getting published today or not. In this country, not too many people want to have anything to do with me. That could be translated into having a problem getting published.

Why don't a lot of people want to have anything to do with you? Is it because of the fiction or because it's not commercial?

I have to assume they are frightened by something. For example, I recently read an article in the Smithsonian. It was about writers who are associated with Brooklyn and they listed writers like Tom Wolfe and Henry Miller, but I was not on the list. You can hate a writer but how can you not include my name with a list of writers associated with Brooklyn? That's the attitude of the literary establishment toward me in this country.

In City of Words: American Fiction 1950-70, Tony Tanner states: "A good way to describe what Selby is doing is to say that he is trying to depict a human version of what the ecologist John Calhoun called a 'behavioral sink. ' In a 'behavioral sink' all normal patterns of behavior are disrupted, and the unusual stress leads to all forms of perversion, violence, and breakdown. " Is this an accurate assessment?

I don't think in those terms. I'm not trying to depict a human version of anything. I am doing the best I can to create real people. Now maybe these people fall into this category as this man perceives it. My intent, however, is to put the reader through an emotional experience and not have him just read stories. I have to write from the inside out. Now, if in doing that, it ends up these people fall into what this guy categorizes as a "behavioral sink," then maybe it is true, but it was never my intent.

One of the major problems your characters experience is a lack of communication, and whatever communication there is seems to exist in a sea of obscenities and anger. Please comment on this; and why do people continue to live in these relationships?

I think that's what this guy is referring to when he says a "behavioral sink." My characters live in a fictional hell because that is the way the world is. You defend by attacking. We do that as individuals and as couples because we don't communicate with ourselves. If we are not communicating properly with ourselves, how are we going to do it with another human being? If we can't do it as individuals and couples, how can we possibly do it as a nation? It's easy to look at what the politicians have done in the last twenty years and see how the communication is so faulty that it's destroying the world. It's very easy to see this, but not quite so easy to see it within ourselves and how I miscommunicate with myself. That's the thing that fascinates me. We believe what is true is false and what is false is true. I don't really go out to hurt you or hurt me, but I believe I'm doing something that's going to make me feel better.

Some of your characterswho evoke some of the most sadistic, cruel, and lowest standards of human behaviorget their comeuppance in the end (e.g., Tralala in the self-titled story and Harry Black in "Strike"). Do you believe your characters, as well as people in real life, should receive punishment or should they receive therapy?

I don't believe in punishment. Punishment is a religious concept that has nothing to do with the reality of my being. When I'm communicating with myself I know I am not guilty. I know sin does not exist. Therefore, there is no need for punishment. I absolutely do not believe in punishment. I guess it's called karma. I don't know anything about it, but I do know there is a cause for every effect. It seems our world, especially religious people, really believes in punishment. (I've been a member of Amnesty International and of the Urgent Action Network for whom I've been writing to the heads of state for a long time.) The response of people is that they really believe in punishment. They do not believe in the correction of errors because they believe in sin. So they must punish people. Look at Jerry Falwell or the Ayatollah Khomeini and see what they believe in, see what they propose. They want punishment. No, I don't believe in punishment. I believe in the correction of mistakes. It's my mistakes that I can correct. It's my duty and obligation to be willing to do that.

Many of your characters seem to possess an inherent anger against everybody and society in general. Is this anger translated from personal experience?

Yes. During that time anger was the only thing I was aware of, but I had no idea how much I loved these people I was creating. I became really aware of it watching the film Last Exit to Brooklyn being made and looking at the finished product. I do remember it took me six years to write Last Exit and it was a real struggle. I remember when I'd finally finish a piece and the people would end up in the terrible places they end up, then I would quite often pass out. I think by the time I had finished "Tralala" I spent two weeks in bed. I really got involved with my characters and I lived and died with them. I was enraged at everything and to the best of my ability I directed all my rage and anger towards God because that was the son of a bitch who did this to me.

Do you think it is easy for both the writer and the reader to incorporate the anger in your fiction, albeit unconsciously, into the real world of their own lives?

I don't know if what you mean by "incorporate into the real world" means to go out and be angry with someone you weren't angry with before. I've never heard of that happening. The people who talked to me about Last Exit all use the same word regarding their reaction to the book and that's compassion. This was not a conscious intention of mine as I wrote Last Exit, but one of the results of the book from what everyone tells me is they feel compassion for these people and they end up loving people whom they previously felt were unlovable. It's a great thing to happen and I think the same thing happened with the film.

How did you choose the title Last Exit to Brooklyn?

The title comes from a sign on the Belt Parkway as it goes from Brooklyn into Queens. There is an exit sign which says "Last Exit to Brooklyn." There is also another sign at the other end just before you go into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel that says "Last Exit to Brooklyn Street."

Are the recurring character names in Last Exit and your subsequent fiction based on real life people? If so, did they know they were written about; any knowledge of their whereabouts thirty years later?

The people were real in the sense that they're not totally fictionalized people. I create real people in my books, but there was no Harry Black or Tralala. Actually, there was someone named Tralala, but I never saw her or met her. I just overheard a conversation between two guys in the Greek's saying, "Remember that time Tralala put her tits on the bar." Later on someone said something about finding Tralala naked in the lot. I don't even know if Tralala was her real name or a nickname.

What about Tony or Vinnie?

They're based on hundreds of Tonys and Vinnies I've known in my life, but the interesting thing you were asking about thirty years later is that there were three guys from that neighborhood around the army base that came down to the movie set. We had a reunion where we discussed the old days in the '50s and '60s. Each of them had read all or part of the book and they all had the same reaction: "This never happened!" or "This ain't the way it was!" In a sense, it's all based on reality and on my experience as it goes through my imagination, but there is no Harry Black or Tralala or any specific person it was based on.

Portions of Last Exit To Brooklyn were copyrighted as early as 1957, yet drugs are mentioned frequently in your writing. What was your exposure to drugs (long before it became fashionable in the 1960s), and have you found it helpful to write under the influence of drugs or alcohol?

I never write under the influence of anything. I tried it briefly. The last part of "The Queen Is Dead," where Georgette is dying of an O.D., I tried sipping beer a couple of times and I tried a little demerol, but I just couldn't do it, and that is the only time I tried to write under the influence.

When I was in the hospital, I had a lot of drugs such as morphine, demerol, codeine, and various sleeping pills. I also used heroin. I also drank every opportunity I could so I had that point of reference, but I never wrote under the influence.

"The Queen Is Dead" is a pathetic story of a hip queer looking for love, but all Georgette finds is sarcasm, hate, and violence. Typically, the reader would be sympathetic with the narrator, but do you think most readers should be sympathetic when Georgette is a weak-willed, speed freak-transvestite ?

It depends upon how well the reader communicates with themselves. If they insist upon denying that there is a bit of Georgette in them, then I guess they would have to attack Georgette just as Vinnie and Harry do. They weren't willing to accept that Georgette exists within you and me. Perhaps my attitude is a little different, but I can see the terrible hunger for acceptance in motivating and perverting Georgette's behavior.

What was the basis for writing "The Queen Is Dead," and how were you able to write from the mental perspective of a drag queen ?

I don't see how it's so difficult. Look at how many male writers have written about great female literary characters. That's something very personal with Georgie and myself.

I didn't know it at the time, but I identified with Georgie from the inside. I realize now that Georgie felt like an outcast.

So Georgette was based on an actual person?

There was a real kid named Georgie. Georgie must have felt like an outcast who was totally alienated. He was hysterical in his defense; and his defense was his hysteria. And the more he fed that with stimulants, the more hysterical and wacky and flighty he became. I've always felt like an outcast who was alienated all my life. So Georgie and I had that point of identification although this was totally unconscious. I had a tremendous sympathy for Georgie. I felt like my life was fucking ruined and a disaster. So I had this empathy, sympathy, and compassion going for Georgie.

I wrote the first part of that story, which is one of the first things I ever wrote, from the beginning up until Georgette gets stabbed and they take him home. Originally, the story was called "Love's Labours Lost." A year or two later I met someone from the old neighborhood and they said Georgie had been found dead in the street, evidently an O.D. He was only about twenty years old when he died. I was very, very moved by that information; so much so, that I finished the story. I guess I felt Georgie needed more than to be just a death in the street. He needed a memorial. So I finished the story which in turn led to my writing the entire book. Thus, in a very real way, Georgie is responsible for the book Last Exit to Brooklyn.

The story "And Baby Makes Three" shows an uncaring society of parents. This is shown by Suzy who has just had a baby two weeks ago and doesn't give the baby a second thought while partying until she decides to leave: "So she hunted around and found the kid and cut out." Why do most of your characters who have kids treat them so badly?

I don't know the exact root of that except I've felt victimized and alienated all my life. I've come to terms with that and I realize feelings aren't necessarily facts. I was always very sensitive. There seemed to be a lot of that stuff when I was a kid—kids being battered and banged around. I don't know why I've always been so fascinated by that. I used to give things away to kids because I thought they didn't have anything. I have no idea why.

It has always pissed me off why parents have kids and then treat them so badly. I mean, for Christ's sake, the kid's response should be, "I didn't ask to be born. What the fuck are you on my back for?" I'm sure every kid has had the same experiences I've had. You can't reach a doorknob by yourself. You can't get a glass of water. You are totally dependent on the adult world. Yet, the attitude of the adult world is, "Get out of the way, kid, you bug me."

The first three sentences say a lot about Tralala: "Tralala was 15 the first time she was laid. There was no real passion. Just diversion. " Most readers would expect a girl's first sexual encounter to be special, but Tralala, in the world of Selby, is incapable of feeling. How did you create Tralala?

I suspect we all feel the same way. One way or another most of us are trying to defend against our feelings. We don't want to feel them, we don't want to interpret them, and we don't want to feel guilty. We want to try and project that guilt on someone else. I think we start at an early age to protect ourselves from our feelings.

I believe a story is given to me and it is up to me to understand the essence of that story. It's a responsibility. It took me 2 1/2 years to write "Tralala," which is only about 20 pages long. Most of that time was spent trying to understand the story. When I finally did understand what my responsibility was, then the story just flowed. This is what I was suppose to do with the story. To reflect the psychodynamics of an individual to the rhythm, beat, and tension of a prose line. I understood this to be my task. You previously mentioned that "Tralala" starts with a very tight, short kind of beat and then the line gradually opens up more and more until she reaches the apex of her life where the line is almost a normal line and then the line starts to fall apart. You expect it to disappear any second, but it keeps going on until the end. It never ends. It just stops.

Tralala also is capable of great cruelty. For example, after Tony and Al have beaten up a seaman, Tralala, for no reason at all: "Stomped on his face until both eyes were bleeding his nose was split and broken then kicked him a few times in the balls." Why?

I'll tell you what Buddha would say: "Don't ask why. Why is not important."

Tralala gets her comeuppance in the end after she has been gangbanged hundreds of times: ". . . so they continued to fuck her as she lay unconscious on the seat in the lot. . . (the kids) tore her clothes to small scraps put out a few cigarettes on her nipples pissed on her jerkedoff on her jammed a broomstick up her snatch . . . Tralala lying naked covered with blood urine and semen and a small blot forming on the seat between her legs as blood seeped from her crotch. " Please comment on what may be the most vividly disgusting passage in the annals of literature.

I guess the Christians would say Tralala collected the wages of sin. The Hindus would talk about karmic law. Maybe it's more important for us to see the results to understand some of the spiritual principles underlined.

Tralala does get her comeuppance in the end even though she was raped. A rape doesn't occur if you're insisting on it, but she didn't know what she was insisting on. Again this miscommunication with one's self. She didn't start out to get herself gangbanged, but she made a conscious decision to inflict pain on Annie and Ruthie. She resented them and tried to ruin their good thing with Jack and Fred. Tralala was projecting that anger on them, but her anger finally caught up with her. That's the law of the universe.

The story "Strike" shows Harry Black as another pathetic character who is incapable of goodness and only feels good when other people are miserable. Harry is not totally happy until he makes love to the transvestite Alberta. Why are love and happiness often equated in perverted scenes for most of your characters? Is there anything normal in Selby's world of fiction?

First of all, to get the record straight, we can't pervert our concept of love. For instance, we have these great church leaders in this country and other countries, such as Iran, who say people should be murdered. That's not love to me and yet they claim to be teaching love in the name of God. Now the perversion of it is something we live with and deal with all the time. I believe Last Exit is a microcosm of our world from the beginning of time and will continue till the end of time. I see that perversion of love everywhere. I think it's really dramatized in the book and magnified many times. I also see that perversion permeating in what the U.S. has done politically in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

Harry Black, who is seemingly incapable of crying, starts to cry when he is brutally beaten after Harry tries to have sex with 10-year-old Joey. Harry's last words are, "God You Suck Cock. " It seems incongruous that Harry is now capable of feeling but blames God for the condition of the world.

Anger is an attempt to make somebody else feel guilty. Ultimately, Harry's last act is to accuse God of this problem. It is very simple and very logical.

It seems you have a low opinion of religion.

I don't believe in organized religion. I don't believe it is possible to seek spiritual principals and to make spiritual progress within an orthodox organized religion.

I'm certainly not in accord with what organized religion has done since the beginning of religion. Certainly more people have been murdered in the name of God than under any other guise.

I no longer resent them or blame them. I understand that I must love them as much as I love my children, otherwise I am doing what I accuse them of doing. That's one of the laws of the universe. I try not to use the word God because there is such a misconception around that word. I do believe in a power that created and maintains the universe. I believe in a power of infinite and unconditional love, simply because that power has revealed itself to me from within me. Now I attempt on a daily basis to commune with this power and to live according to the spiritual principles that it dictates. That is my life.

Last Exit to Brooklyn has finally been made into a movie twenty-five years after the novel was published. What are your thoughts about the movie?

It was received very well in Europe where it opened on the 12th of October 1989 in Munich. It is scheduled to open in the U.S. around March or April of 1990.

I think the film is really great because it does justice to my fictional work. This may be one of the few times it has been done. We did not change the dark, oppressive nature of the book and thus remained faithful to the basic spirit of the book.

The film consisted of an American cast and crew which was shot on location in Brooklyn, but the producer and director were German. Tralala was played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Harry Black is played by Stephen Lang, Vinnie is played by Peter Dobson, and Joe is played by Burt Young. It's real ensemble where no one character or personality prevails. I played the driver of the car that kills Georgette.

What was the basis for writing The Room? Also, didn't you spend some time in jail?

I did spend a couple months in jail, but the basis for The Room is variations on a musical theme. You have a theme of the prisoner's reality which includes such variations as his memory of it and his projections. You might call it an enigma variation. I wrote a story in jail called "The Sound" and that is where the concept for the novel started. It was published in my most recent book, which is a collection of stories entitled Song of the Silent Snow.

The reason I was in jail was for possession of narcotics. Heroin. (The actual charge was driving while under the influence.) The drugs were an extension of all the addictive medication I had when I was in the hospital. I haven't had any drugs now for more than 20 years.

The unnamed prisoner in The Room is the antithesis of the prisoner in Camus's novel The Stranger. Whereas Camus's Mersault is ambivalent and fatalistic, your prisoner is filled with anger but has no way to release it. How were you able to sustain this mental anger and transfer it to the written page?

I know enough about anger to be able to remember the experience of it. You pay a price for it, I can tell you.

I tried to write from the inside out. I wanted to put the reader through an emotional experience which means I must experience every emotion I'm writing in order to get it down and to the point in order that the reader will experience it. I've spent a lot of time inside my head and I understand the rage and frustration of being confined, not just in jail, but also the 3 1/2 years in the hospital due to tuberculosis.

The Room is written in such a manner (e.g., the paragraphs are indented farther) that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish reality from the prisoner's fantasy.

Initially, the reader may have a problem, but I believe once you get in the rhythm of the writing it becomes pretty obvious. I think the rhythm reveals everything so the reader can easily distinguish reality from fantasy.

What about the reason for indenting the paragraphs more so than normal?

Some of them are dropped paragraphs but all my typography is musical notation. If it's indented more than usual and not a drop paragraph it's because I want that extra dotted note there.

What was the inspiration for the brutal rape of Mrs. Haagstromm? Also the original rape scene is part of the prisoner's fantasy, but later it appears to be part of the court testimony.

The rape of Mrs. Haagstromm is a product of the prisoner's fantasy where he attempts to destroy the prosecution and the cops. The rape scene is a product of his imagination to prove the authorities are really guilty and not him.

How did you select Mrs. Haagstromm's name?

I don't know. If you notice the other names are like Hollywood soap opera names whereas Haagstromm seemed to be a perfect name for a perfect person. It seemed totally appropriate.

Mrs. Haagstromm, an innocent rape victim, seems to dramatically contrast with Tralala. However, you stated in an interview (Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1981) that, "We all cause everything that happens to us, whether we recognize it or not. " Does this statement apply to Mrs. Haagstromm?

Everything that happens to us happens as a result of a decision we make, but she didn't necessarily make that decision because she was a figment of the prisoner's imagination.

It seems the prisoner becomes just as vindictive and sadistic as the two cops since he fantasizes about getting even with them. Essentially, the prisoner and the cops have the same mentality, don't they?

Yes. Experiments have proven, since the book was written, that this is true.

Discuss the scene where the prisoner fantasizes about having sex in church with Mary and the interplay of sex with the prayer "Our Father. "

It just flowed perfectly and naturally from his psyche. It seems to be the most, as I'm thinking about it now, simple way again of accusing God of his problems. This guy is saying essentially the same thing as Harry Black: "Fuck God!"

The Room also recalls the writing of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers where the main character is in jail and draws an outline of his penis on a letter to his girlfriend. Please comment on Genet and such scenes in The Room: "It was as if thats all there was to him. As if that was all there was to be seen. Just a limp, sticky, scraping penis floundering around between his legs. And he had to walk behind it, slowly moving one leg and then the other, and follow it wherever it led him. It wasnt a part of him. He was a part of it. "

That was where he couldn't think above his navel, but I don't think Genet influenced that in any way. That's an awareness that you come to when you spend a lot of time locked up. I spent four years of my life locked up, both in the hospital and jail, and you become aware of where your mind goes.

The Room ends with the prisoner basically imprisoned in his own mind. The novel seems to have come full circle to the beginning where the prisoner talked about astronomers and time: "And where did it get them? So they figured out where mars would be in ten thousand years. Big deal! Krist, what a stupid waste of time. And where did it get them? Where? After they figure all that shit out theyre either dead or still sitting on their ass looking at the goddamm sky. Right back where they started from. You always end up where you started from. "

Whether you look at it realistically or metaphysically, you end up from where you started. You have to get back to the beginning where you created the mistake.

Is the prisoner essentially insane at the end?

I don't think so. Not insane in the worldly sense, but we all are insane because we have all taught ourselves that what is true is false and what is false is true. I believe that's a form of insanity, perhaps not in this world, but metaphysically. What the prisoner is saying at the end of the book is that he is really a prisoner of guilt. Specifically, most of his guilt is sexual guilt because everything in his head is due to sexual repression. He is interpreting all of life sexually and using it viscerally and vindictively. There is no love in that book, but there is a lot of sex and violence. Sex is used as a power tool, but never as an expression of love. The guy is obviously feeling guilt. Whether or not he actually did something is immaterial because he has found himself guilty. At the end of the novel they open his cell door and tell him to come out, but he says no since he has judged himself, like mankind, to be guilty even though we are born innocent.

There is a statement from John O'Brien's interview (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1981) that says he believes Selby "can write so much about sex without being erotic. " I think, however, many readers find your scenes with Tralala or the rape of Mrs. Haagstromm as being very erotic even if it is in a perverted way.

I don't think of my writing as being erotic. I guess if you associate sex with violence and look at it as a power play or manipulation, then I guess maybe it is erotic for some people.

The use of sex in your fiction is often performed as an act of desperation. Do you think this is basically true and that sex, if not performed with love, often compounds the situation ?

Yes. I think sex, when performed as an act of desperation, is a very basic instinct and it is an instinct for survival. Ironically, sex as an act of desperation often leads to reproduction and more desperation.

There is a lovely scene in a story by Faulkner called "Pylon" which is set in the old barnstorming days of pilots flying back in the '30s. It's about a guy who is suppose to do a parachute jump with his girlfriend. She is climbing out on the wing, but she has never done it before and she becomes frightened. She starts to crawl back into the cockpit where the guy is flying and she grabs his fly and trys to rip his fly open. I think that is an instinctual thing with us when our lives are threatened. We reach for our crotch.

The one possible exception to sex as an act of desperation seems to be the story "Landsend" where the black stud Abraham is almost fucked to death by Lucy. The conclusion shows Abraham and Lucy grinding away with both of them very content.

Even though Abraham and Lucy have a good time fucking all night doesn't mean there isn't desperation. Look at Abraham's whole day and what is the focus of his entire being. It is all sex and thinking about this fine brownskinned girl. It seems to me there is a great deal of desperation there. For example, when he comes home he is exhausted, but after he hangs up his clothes and puts on his hair net it's not because he's going to work the next day. And how about his wife? She's certainly bitching about her desperation because she's reaching for his crotch after fantasizing earlier about finding another cock. Desperation manifests itself in their lives through sex.

With the novel The Demon you have a character (Harry White) that initially is the opposite of the character (Harry Black) in "Strike," yet he chooses evil. Why do your characters, most of whom fail because of a lack of mental control over their physical impulses, consistently choose evil, when the alternative is the more obvious choice to a satisfying life?

For one thing, they don't choose evil. I don't think anyone deliberately chooses evil. If you will notice, the epitaph of that book says: A man obsessed is a man possessed by a demon. We are dealing with obsessions of the mind and the one basic quality about an obsession is that an obsession can never be satisfied. If your obsession is whiskey there isn't enough whiskey in the world to satisfy you. There isn't enough money or power or women to satisfy you. An obsession can never be satisfied. What Harry attempts to do is to get free of the basic obsession by becoming obsessed with other things. At one point I think he uses plants and for a while he directs all his energies to becoming a successful businessman. All these things work, but only for a while. As far as he is capable he loves his wife and his family, but since he must satisfy his obsession then he has to surrender to it.

It is unfortunate that John Gardner died so early, because it would be interesting to have the two of you discuss his book On Moral Fiction. Do you think both of you are attacking the same problem from different poles? Also, what do you think of Gardner's book?

That is something I'd love to discuss. The object, goal, and concern when I write is the perfection of my art. I try to write the best story I can write. How my personality is always involved with my sense of morality. I think you can see where one of my basic obsessions in life is love, the perversion of love, and the lack of love. You can also interpret what Gardner says as meaning we should be moral propogandists. I certainly don't believe that. I don't want to try and prove a point. If there is any point to be proven, the people that I create will prove and make that point. I believe the primary concern and responsibility of the artist is to be free of the human ego. So I don't think I have any business being in the book.

Requiem for a Dream shows the addiction of four characters with three of them hooked on heroin. While the novel can be viewed as a microcosm of society, it seems even more prophetic ten years after it was written with so many people addicted to crack cocaine and the subsequent effect on society in terms of addiction, crime, and violence.

We are all dealing with mental obsessions and, in this case, the Great American Dream: if you make it on the outside then everything is going to be fine. It's not true. I don't care how limited or how infinite your dream may be. Success is an inside job because life is an inside job. (Perhaps I'm too involved with America, but it seems like we are more involved with facade than any other country because the influences of Madison Avenue and Hollywood are so persuasive and so powerful.) I think it becomes pretty obvious, whether it's Sara or Marion, regardless of what values we may have adopted. We still have this obsession to look for anything that will quiet the raging in our heads.

"A Penny for Your Thoughts" (from Song of the Silent Snow) shows Harry fantasizing about the girl Marie. This story is representative of a lot of your fiction in that your characters, like people in real life, prefer to fantasize about doing something rather than actually doing it.

It seems to me there are a couple of things involved. First of all, in fantasy I'm the boss. Nothing else really impinges itself or can interfere with my fantasy. Whatever I want to do I can do. Fantasy is safe. I don't have to take any chance of failure. However, if I try to bring this to life on the outside world then I'm taking the chance of failure. We are also dealing with a very basic spiritual, metaphysical, psychological type of love. Remember, it was Jesus who said if you go to bed with a married woman you are committing adultry and even if you think it you've committed it. Now that's a very interesting thing. I don't believe he was just making some kind of judgment, but was explaining the nature of life with that remark. Because we do create the world we live in with our thoughts. When I am continually fantasizing about doing something my inner self says, "Hey, this is real!" The mind, however, doesn't know the difference between reality or fantasy. We also don't have to put a lot of energy into it. There is no need to go out and actually do it, yet the incentive, the energy, and the need to act are gone.

Finally, in the interview with O'Brien you stated your books "are trying to examine the disease . . . And the disease . . . is the lack of love. " You then state the first four books only dealt with the problem, but that notes for forthcoming books would "incorporate the problem as well as the answer. " Are you currently working on a new novel, and what can the reader look forward to from Hubert Selby, Jr.?

Yes. I'm working on a new novel called Seeds of Pain, Seeds of Love. I'm three hundred pages into it. This is a creative effort to not only examine the problem, but to get from the problem to the answer. There is a little touch of that in some of the stories of Song of the Silent Snow, especially the title story, which is one of the last stories I've written. I hope this novel will succeed in the attempt to expand on the answer to the disease.

Yet this book is much different. My first four books examined the disease from a pathological perspective. I haven't been in any of my books. There is a difference now when I'm talking about the answer in this book because most of the facts are facts from my life. I guess it could be considered autobiographical. Of course, you give a writer a fact and God only knows where you are going to end up. The basic facts are from my life and in addition to that this book is written in the first person singular. Whether it will be totally that way or not I don't know. It will be recognizable as being written by me because I seem to have a very distinctive style or voice. I guess I'm one of those people who is more distinctive than others because of the nature and energy of my feelings as it is translated to my writing through my imagination. Hopefully, the seeds of my imagination will be productive.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

Biography

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.

Criticism

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 for Danny Fisher and Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn." Journal of Popular Culture 8, No. 2, (Fall 1974): 295-308.

Compares the graphic nature of Last Exit to Brooklyn with Harold Robbins's A Stone for Danny Fisher, and finds that Selby's vision of urban violence was prophetic.

Kreutzer, Everhard. "Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn: The Psychodynamics of Person and Place." Amerika Studien-American Studies 22, No. 1 (1977): 137-45.

Provides a close examination of Selby's style and method in Last Exit to Brooklyn while exploring the recurring theme of confinement throughout the six stories.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Review of Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby, Jr. Studies in Short Fiction III, No. 1 (Fall 1965): 77-8.

Argues that Last Exit is disparaged as obscene largely because it is dangerous and effective prose.

Peavy, Charles D. "Hubert Selby and the Tradition of Moral Satire." The Satire Newsletter VI, No.2 (Spring 1969): 35-9.

Demonstrates that Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn is social satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Solotaroff, Theodore. "Hubert Selby's Kicks." In The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, pp.165-70. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

Rejects the religious imagery in Last Exit to Brooklyn as hollow and finds nihilism to be the dominant strain of Selby's writing.

Stephens, Michael. "Hubert Selby, Jr." In The Dramaturgy of Style: Voice in Short Fiction, pp. 102-28. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Asserts that Selby's voice in his first four books is a poetic one and that it is voice, not plot or character, that gives Selby's writing its power.

Yacowar, Maurice. Review of Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby, Jr. Edge 5 (Fall 1966): 108-11.

Focuses on the efforts of the characters in Last Exit to Brooklyn to affect substitutes for the love and sentiment that is missing from their lives.

Yurick, Sol. "Hubert Selby: Symbolic Intent and Ideological Resistance (or Cocksucking and Revolution)." The Evergreen Review 13, No. 71 (October 1969): 49-51, 73-8.

Argues that Last Exit describes a subconscious political movement in which the disaffected and marginalized are seemingly empowered by their refusal to accept the larger society's definition of reality as their own.

Interviews

Frankel, Haskel. "Call Me Cubby." Saturday Review 48, No. 4 (23 January 1965): 40-1.

Discusses Selby's life and influences during the writing of Last Exit to Brooklyn.

Gontarski, S. E. "Last Exit to Brooklyn: An Interview with Hubert Selby." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 10, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 111-15.

Recounts Selby's relationship with his first publisher, Grove Press.

Additional coverage of Selby's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16 (rev. ed.); Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 8; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.

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