Selby, Hubert, Jr. (Vol. 4)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1340

Selby, Hubert, Jr. 1928–

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Selby is a controversial American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

Criticism of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn has been generally hostile. The book is usually mentioned in passing as an example of corruption and/or decay in modern literature and/or society. Time magazine even went so far as to assert, in its review, that anyone who gave the book a good notice would obviously be in the employ of Grove Press. I liked Last Exit to Brooklyn, but since I cannot produce any notarized affidavits certifying my independence of the publisher's payroll, the reader will have to be content merely with my most emphatic denial of any such relationship….

In all the furor over Selby's book as a perhaps appropriate victim of censorship, little progress has been made in evaluating it in terms of literary criteria. Could it be that Selby seems so dangerous precisely because he is an effective and persuasive writer of prose fiction?

Before answering this question in detail we should determine for ourselves exactly what the intention of the book is. The title provides us with a clue. The stories are not about Brooklyn but about the last exit to Brooklyn. Selby is making no claim to encyclopedic sociological thoroughness in laying before us the hoodlums, queers, and whores of city-planned slums. He presents us with an exit, a point of departure, a specific view which can be tested only in terms of its inner viability, its effectiveness in dominating the imagination with its own standards of reality….

The only appropriate question is, does Selby's Brooklyn work?

It does not work in all the details, a fact which separates Selby as a good writer from the first-raters. His ear for language is often quite inept ("did yadig" for "didya dig"), and his insistence upon including gratuitous sexual episodes to liven up quiet movements (as in "Strike") indicates a lack of confidence. Perhaps he is making capital out of the well-known fact that a censored book is an automatic bestseller in this country. In any case, his control over the world of his stories is not uniformly sound; given his subject-matter, the slip from the pathetic to the bathetic is all too easy.

In general, however, Selby presents us with a compelling vision. It is difficult to choose any one story to illustrate this, because the whole collection is interdependent. The first story, for example, may frighten many readers away because it is an apparently senseless presentation of violence and brutality. This story contains, however, the most radical expression of all the principles which inform the rest of the book. It is told from the point of view of a group, an uneasy grammatical construction in our singular-oriented language. This group functions under a set of rules which will be alien to most readers. The cohesive principle is kicks, that vague word which elbows its way into our consciousness usually by way of the tabloids. The word is not vague when Selby is through. Kicks is anything that counteracts the forces that bring the members of the group into individual self-consciousness: boredom, lack of money, lack of purpose….

Critics are wrong to dismiss Selby on the grounds that this picture is "tasteless" or "obscene." But they are right if they recognize that Selby has presented only part of the picture, a modern Inferno, if you will. Comparisons with Dante are likely to be fruitless, but we have a right to hope, if not expect, that Selby will see fit to exercise his talents in the more difficult direction of writing about those people in Brooklyn he loves, not pities.

W. J. T. Mitchell, in Studies in Short Fiction, Fall, 1965, pp. 77-8.

What Selby is saying [in "The Room"] is that in the lives of the powerless nothing occurs. Or rather everything occurs but to no...

(The entire section contains 1340 words.)

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