Selby, Hubert, Jr. 1928–
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...
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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 effect. Their debasement and triumph are all fiction. Day-dreaming. Nothing is changed by their lives. Whether they live or die, suffer or not, are good or evil means nothing. For, being impotent, they are outside history. They are casualties numbered on a list and forgotten….
[The novel] is a nightmare and pain. It is an exquisite, meticulous examination of the curious piteous lust between oppressor and oppressed. It documents the sexual basis of power and criminality. As a work of the imagination, I think it assures Hubert Selby's place in the first rank of American novelists…. In "The Room" and "Last Exit to Brooklyn" Selby has created characters with a concreteness, force and individuality seldom found in American fiction. And yet they are eminently American characters. They could exist nowhere else. That is why to understand Selby's work is to understand the anguish of America….
Selby's genius is that he compels us to feel. And that is a marvelous thing. Think of it: a writer has come along and created a novel which sensitizes us to the pain of others, a novel profoundly concerned, perhaps too deeply, with America and yet a novel that refuses to sentimentalize the American experience. "The Room" is a great, moral book.
Dotson Rader, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 12, 1971, pp. 5, 28-9.
"This book is dedicated,/with love,/to the thousands/who remain nameless/and know." The dedication page of Hubert Selby's new novel [The Room] suggests that—as in the fated and, later, fêted Last Exit to Brooklyn—the author's primary role is that of social critic. The criminals, in Last Exit, were not the mindless sadists it so often depicted so much as those who ran the society which gave rise to such people: it was not the savage sex that was nauseating, but the social conditions that fostered it. That, in any case, would seem to have been the thesis; and if Mr. Selby was out to turn the average stomach with Last Exit, then he probably succeeded, though whether he managed at the same time to stir the average conscience is quite another matter.
In The Room, the range is narrowed a little. The malign influence depicted here is still, by implication, society at large, but it is personified by the most obvious example of its repressive influence: the police.
"Pig Sticking," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), February 25, 1972, p. 209.
[Selby's novel] The Room [is] his portrait of a festering mind…. From human dregs, from the unremittingly tormented, Selby extracts the very odor of rage, the essence of that free-floating anger that lies like a pall over all of us….
His preoccupations are the relentless pursuit of machismo through all the ways of cruelty, the fear of failure and worthlessness that drives men into deeper and deeper vileness. Selby is a clinician of male violence, dissecting straight to the center of sexual chaos and cruelty….
Where Last Exit to Brooklyn focused on the social scene of violence, from brawls to sexual infighting, The Room is the story of one mind riveted on fury. Sadism is the only means of survival for Selby's nameless hero, who festers in prison as he awaits trial for an unnamed crime….
This is Selby's vision of a culture's bedrock psyche, a portrait of an American mind gone the limit in its acceptance of cruelty as life's only fixed principle. Selby perceives pain, whether inflicted or felt, as the basic bond between people. If he does not gloat over the cruelty he describes, Selby nevertheless sees nothing else, nothing but the terror of those dismal, festering characters who spring from his imagination so fully formed in their vileness. He does write of them with love, with an energy and purity of style that is absolute in its insistence on your glimmer of recognition and assent: is their life yours? Whether it is or not, reading Selby is like being mugged.
Josephine Hendin, "Angries: S-M as a Literary Style," in Harper's (copyright © 1974, by Harper's Magazine, Inc.; reprinted from the February, 1974 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission), February, 1974, pp. 87-93.