Selby, Hubert, Jr. 1928-
American short story writer and novelist.
A controversial writer of ultrarealistic fiction, Selby gained prominence in 1964 with the publication of his first collection of short stories, Last Exit to Brooklyn. While many critics praise Selby's unique narrative style and unflinching realism as significant contributions to the short story form, the shocking accounts of life on the streets of Brooklyn push the limits of public tolerance for violence and obscenity. In stories populated by prostitutes, drug-abusers, transvestites, gang members, and permanently marginalized members of society, Selby purposely retains a neutral tone, sometimes drawing comparisons to satirical-moralist writers such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Nonetheless Selby conveys compassion for the hopeless characters of his horrific stories that is all-the-more compelling for its lack of sentimentality.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Selby dropped out of high school at age fifteen to join the merchant marine. While in Germany in 1946, he was diagnosed with severe tuberculosis and was sent back to Brooklyn where he remained hospitalized until 1950. When Selby was finally released from the hospital he became immersed in the hapless, drug-ridden culture of the street—of which he eventually became more of an observer than a participant. Around the same time, Selby befriended a group of aspiring writers from Brooklyn and Greenwich Village and became interested in literature and writing. With the support and encouragement of a friend, writer Gilbert Sorrentino, Selby worked to develop his writing skills. In 1956, his first short story, the harsh, tragic "The Queen Is Dead," was published in the Black Mountain Review. But it was the 1964 publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn, and the attendant controversy surrounding its graphic language and sexually explicit subject matter that put Selby squarely in the public eye. The author fought with drug and alcohol addiction during the last half of the sixties, finally returning again to writing around 1969 and completing his novel The Room shortly thereafter. Selby has published two other novels and a collection of short stories since 1971. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Selby's most famous book, Last Exit to Brooklyn, also stands as his most critically acclaimed. The six tales of street life in Brooklyn outline an unbelievably brutal world. "Tralala," explicitly details a vicious gang rape, and "Strike," considered by many commentators to be Selby's most accomplished work, tells the story of a man who attempts to have sex with a young boy and is later crucified by a street gang in retaliation. Last Exit was shocking enough in its time to cause a stir in both the literary world and in the courts. The collection was brought to trial on obscenity charges in the United States and England, and many commentators were provoked to defend or denounce the book's artistic merits. Selby's subsequent books, three novels and a collection of short stories, have failed to gather as much attention from the public. Published in 1971, Selby's second book The Room is a violent, streamof-conscious narrative from the mind of an incarcerated criminal. While this novel was well received by critics, it failed to achieve the popular success of Last Exit. In 1986, Selby returned to the form that launched his career with a collection of short stories, Song of the Silent Snow.
Much of the early criticism of Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn revolves around the appropriateness of the book's content. Attacked as pornography and celebrated for its realism, Last Exit has received rather polar critical responses. Many critics agree, however, that Selby's creative prose is often obscured by the shocking nature of his stories. His experimental narrative style and straightforward approach to his subject matter are generally considered innovative and successful. Others point to Selby's effective use of metaphor within a realistic context to imbue frightening stories of human hatred and brutality with a spiritual undertone. Selby uses dispassionate, unflinching accounts of violence and despair to bring about a full expression of human pain. While he has written relatively few short stories, his achievements in style and his forthright presentation of his particular subject matter make him an important contributor to the short story form.