Feeling the Power: The Everlasting Impact of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit of Brooklyn

 

“…You men writers always put your balls in the way of the story…get your ego out of the way and just tell the story…!”

Hubert Selby Jr. to Henry Rollins, Los Angeles, 1986

 

When Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was published in 1964, it left a serious wake in the social and literary world of the time that is still felt today. Controversial and even banned upon publication for its graphic language and depictions, the book showcased subject matter and a writing style that has not been rivaled since.

In three-hundred eleven pages, Last Exit to Brooklyn brought a number of momentous achievements. The first came with the writer himself—though a contemporary of the Beat writers, Selby stood apart from his writing peers. William Burroughs wrote about being a fugitive, gay, and on narcotics. So did Allen Ginsberg, albeit in poetry and with political leanings, rather than apolitical novels. Many of their Beat comrades were often collaborative, university-educated intellectuals that explored world travel and Eastern religion, especially by the time many of their hippie devotees caught up to their influence in the late 1960s. By contrast, Selby was a hardened New Yorker, Kentucky-born merchant marine. Selby ran with Brooklyn toughs before leaving school after the ninth grade and following his dad into the Atlantic Ocean shipping industry.

Selby was also a truly broken and damaged human. The public has long been aware of how writers suffer. A lack of money, creativity blocks, relationship issues, and political persecution often top the list of writer indignities. However, it could be argued that no writer suffered quite like Selby, Beat or otherwise. Tuberculosis caught on a ship transporting beef resulted in him losing a lung and having his ribs removed to extract that lung. The subsequent self-induced usage of illegal narcotics resulted in his long addiction to them. As a husband and father with few career options after his hospital release, Selby seemed almost choice-less in the writing career he would eventually undertake.

What is interesting upon reflection about Last Exit to Brooklyn is that it’s not a novel at all. The six vignettes that collect together to make Last Exit—‘Another Day, Another Dollar’,  ‘The Queen Is Dead’, ‘And Baby Makes Three’, ‘Tralala’, ‘Strike’, and ‘Landsend’—are separate narratives depicting an array of characters dealing with their own circumstances. Yet when reading all of them together they become like chapters of a novel or epic, connected by their common themes of poverty, repression, violence, sexuality, and addiction.

Given Selby’s aforementioned background and afflictions, it seems only fitting that all of his personal matters would find themselves running through his typewriter. But Selby took it a step further by being determined to capture the language and atmosphere of the streets he knew. The result was galvanizing. Much has been made of his lack of regard to formal English grammar and syntax—he negated apostrophes, quotation marks, proper margins, and former spelling in favour of slang, run-on sentences, and informal letter casing. But to even read line-by-line the passages of Last Exit to Brooklyn is to still feel the shock that most ‘hardcore’ writers only wish they could do in its capturing of the prostitutes, junkies, and drunken sailors that surrounded him. In ‘The Queen is Dead’, the reader is treated to ‘Thats it HAHA OOO Hey, take it easy with ya tongue…’, while Harry, the repressed machinist-turned-union representative protagonist of ‘Strike’ reflects on his newborn son that his wife Mary has borne him, noting he’d like to ‘…take the goddamn kid and jam it up her snatch…’. To say Selby held nothing back would be polite.

The aftermath of Last Exit to Brooklyn’s release was an exercise in controversy. It was banned in the United Kingdom until writers such as Anthony Burgess defended it, while back in the United States the book was not a critical darling, with many critics attacking its style and subject matter. It did well commercially though, enabling Selby some short term wealth. While Selby himself was lucky to dispel his doctor’s assentation that he’d never live from his illnesses, he continued to suffer from drug and alcohol issues thereafter, along with relationship problems, debt, and further physical ailments. Only further publications such as The Room and Requiem for a Dream re-elevated his personal/professional livelihood before the adaptations of his work for film and television and his moving to the American West Coast to teach creative writing.

It’s also curious to note what came after Last Exit to Brooklyn. New York-based films such as The French Connection and Mean Streets gained popularity. Multimedia artist Andy Warhol produced controversial, New York and outsider-centric events, films, and the now-influential rock and roll band the Velvet Underground. The Velvet’s guitarist-songwriter Lou Reed openly acknowledged his debt to Last Exit to Brooklyn in helping to infuse the content of his song lyrics in songs like ‘Heroin’ and ‘Sister Ray’. Other disciples of Selby such as Richard Price and Jerry Stahl published their own hard street-based narratives in book-form.

Selby died in 2004 but Last Exit to Brooklyn remains. When it was first published, Allen Ginsberg said it would ‘explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years’. Hopefully that will continue to be the case.

New Book: Jerry Rubin, Yippies, Chicago 8, Ginsberg, Dylan, John & Yoko

Announcing the first ever oral & visual history of Jerry Rubin & The Yippies – featuring Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, Chicago 8 Defendants, Black Panthers, John & Yoko, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Phil Ochs, Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Studio 54, Timothy Leary, Zippies, and much more: DID IT! JERRY RUBIN: AN AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY Continue Reading…

Incredible Collection of Ginsberg Materials Now Online for Free

Stanford University has just added a staggering 2,141 digital files relating to Allen Ginsberg to its library website. Most of these files are audio taken from cassette tapes, and they include recorded lectures, answering machine messages, interviews,and even conversations with friends such as William S. Burroughs. Continue Reading…

Win Free Beat Generation Books

It’s competition time once again! Here at Beatdom Books we specialize in publishing books about the Beat Generation. In addition to publishing the Beatdom literary journal, we also publish books about the Beats, including these ones: Continue Reading…

Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson: From Loathing and Fear to Fear and Loathing

What do Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson have in common? Both were great writers, of course. Both had a fondness for hallucinogens and wrote important books about mind-bending drugs. Both were astute social commentators. However, beyond that there’s not a great deal to link these men, who were very different characters.

But here’s an odd connection between them: Continue Reading…

Remembering Jay DeFeo

I hopped the BART train for the short ride under the bay from Fremont to San Francisco. It was 1995 and the newest incarnation of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had recently opened. I had heard that the masterwork of my former painting teacher was now on “permanent” display there. It was Jay DeFeo’s The Rose. Continue Reading…

Released just a few days ago, The Complete Songs Of Innocence And Experience by Allen Ginsberg is a multi-CD (or download, if you prefer) album featuring eight previously unissued songs.

The album is produced by Pat Thomas, who wrote for Beatdom a few years ago.

Allegories from the Cave: Burroughs and Trocchi – a Platonic Love

‘Demiurgos scowled, and with that Plato awoke.

Or did he?’

Voltaire

The drug experience has often been perceived as a public and social issue. Yet, drug use and experience are unquestionably a matter of personal choice, as indeed are the consequences. Nevertheless, there is a persistent tension between the public and the private surrounding drug use. The criminalisation and condemnation of drug use in the mid-twentieth century developed entirely within the public sphere. The drug user essentially had no voice and their dependence subjected them to a criminality and demonization. Indeed, the reality of drug use was, and remains, often distorted and misrepresented to the public by politicians and policy makers. A particular case in point being the wide-spread, and persistent view that one drug, like marijuana, if it does not in itself destroy the user’s life, will eventually lead to harder drugs like heroin addiction and criminal activity. But while the public had its spokespersons and rhetoric, like Henry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to denounce them, drug users and addicts were subjected to an imbalanced power dynamic with no one to speak for them. What we find in The Yage Letters of William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book are efforts to publicly privatise the drug experience. Or to put the matter another way: these works attempt to make the public aware of the user’s private experience. The aesthetic form of these books reflects the public performance of private life. Moreover, what these authors accomplish has unique parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave in which an anonymous hero reveals ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ to his community. Continue Reading…

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Lecture

A few days ago, the Nobel Prize YouTube Channel posted Bob Dylan’s lecture, which was a requirement for any recipient of the award. In 2016, he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, to the surprise of many.

The speech is typical Dylan – intelligent and very funny in a rather subtle way. He begins by describing his own birth as a musician through his musical idols, and then moves into literature, talking about three books: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. He describes each story and then relates their themes briefly to his own work. Finally, in a very Dylaneque conclusion, he announces that maybe everything is just nothing and we’re all reading into art to find what isn’t there.

 

There was, sadly, no mention of his Beat literary influences. Dylan was a friend of Allen Ginsberg‘s and said of Jack Kerouac, “I read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.”

Read more about Bob Dylan and the Beat Generation.

Gary Snyder: Heart-Beat – A Diptych

“From a certain point onward there is no turning back.  This is the point that must be reached.”

Kafka

 

 

The Six Gallery Reading

 

They came from the streets: from Fillmore and Broadway, from Columbus and East 7th, from Amsterdam and Morningside Drive.  From Lower Burnside.  Cross-country.  Cross-town.  There was talk of a renaissance.

On this first Friday of October, 1955, a waning gibbous moon was rising in the east.  It had been hot that day, eighty-two and windless.  The sun means nothing in San Francisco.  It’s all about the wind.  It would not be a cold night, the fog, mercifully, offshore, but it would be cool.  It would be very cool. Continue Reading…