“…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.