Hubert Selby Jr’s American Dream

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The American Dream is the unifying theme across the work of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac wrote wondrous love letters while William Burroughs explored its often nightmarish landscape. However, Hubert Selby Jr. was the only writer to identify its failure while also providing an antidote to correct it.

Hubert “Cubby” Selby Jr. was born in the dilapidated Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York in 1928.  He spent his formative years surrounded by petty thieves and delinquents, frequenting the local pool halls. After finishing ninth grade, Selby became a Merchant Marine and traveled the world, eventually being exposed to bad meat while at sea and contracting a near-fatal case of tuberculosis.

Selby returned to the United States to be hospitalized. The doctors told him that he had less than a year to live and he subsequently spent four years in and out of hospitals.  He was the only survivor in his tuberculosis ward, most likely because his mom bought him an experimental drug treatment from the black market. Selby endured excruciating surgeries; at one point ten ribs were removed from his back to get to his collapsed lung and he developed chronic pulmonary problems.

During Selby’s many surgeries, he was given morphine to curb his pain. He fell in love with the opiate rush, which mutated into a nasty five year spell of heroin and alcohol dependencies. It was in the hospital that Hubert Selby Jr. had a spiritual awakening and epiphany, realizing that he didn’t want to die as a man without accomplishments. His life-long dream was to become a composer but he lacked the resources to attain a formal education in composing so he decided to become a writer because he “knew the alphabet.”

Selby developed an avant-garde style that ignored the conventions of traditional prose. He showed irreverence towards punctuation and grammar and often replaced apostrophes with slashes. He relied upon hard-hitting dialogue and a stream-of-consciousness style that was already being employed in Beat literature by Jack Kerouac.

Hubert Selby Jr. got two of his short stories published in the early sixties: “The Queen is Dead” and “Tralala” which were about drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, and part of the seedy underbelly that Selby had been exposed to growing up in Brooklyn. “Tralala” was the story of a young prostitute that ended with a brutal gang rape. It was celebrated for its rawness and its unorthodox stylistic choices. However, many critics attacked the story for its brutality and the journal’s editor was arrested for selling pornographic material to a minor.

Selby assembled six of his stories and submitted them as a novel to Jack Kerouac’s agent Sterling Lord.  In 1964 Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was released by the infamous Grove Press, the same publishing house that had published William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in 1959. Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg said, “Last Exit to Brooklyn should explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years.


Last Exit to Brooklyn explored the great failure of the American Dream as it shriveled in the shadows of post-war Brooklyn.  Like Selby’s first two stories, which were included in the novel, it dealt with subjects that were taboo in the American psyche of that time: rape, prostitution, homosexuality, violence, and sexual anguish. The stories were told with an objective and voyeuristic eye. Selby showed deplorable characters and examined their failures with compassion, whether the failures were monetary or emotional.  He chose empathy as the device to fix where the American Dream had gone awry, suggesting that love could help us prevail no matter how cold or empty we had become.

Last Exit to Brooklyn became an international best seller and catapulted Hubert Selby Jr. to literary fame. He was still helplessly addicted to heroin so he decided to escape from the New York drug scene by moving to Los Angeles. He fell into his old habits out west and was quickly impoverished by his addiction, blowing all of his royalty earnings on drugs.

In 1967 Selby was busted for a possession of heroin in Los Angeles. He spent two months in the Los Angeles County Jail and ended up getting clean for good, eventually refusing morphine on his death bed despite his pain. It was during this time that Last Exit to Brooklyn was the subject of a high profile obscenity trial in Great Britain and banned in Italy, creating more notoriety for the book and helping to bump sales to over seven million.

Selby’s second novel, The Room, was published in 1971. The novel chronicled an insane man trapped in a prison cell as he fantasized about the revenge he would seek on the people that put him there. The Room examined the depths of the psyche and was Selby’s boldest statement on the human condition.  The book received positive reviews and was commercially successful . Selby once stated that he could not read it for decades after writing it and that it was, “the most disturbing book ever written.”

The seventies were Selby’s most prolific writing period. In 1976 he published The Demon which examined the rise and fall of Harry White, a young and successful business man who had compulsive urges to sleep with married women.  As his womanizing becomes blasé, Harry begins to delve into criminality and eventually murder to satisfy his relentless compulsion. This was yet another novel that explored the dark depths of the human psyche, while also latching onto themes of greed and obsession.  The Demon received tepid success nationally earning greater appreciation abroad.

Requiem for a Dream was published in 1978 and is Selby’s most profound exemplification of the failure of the American Dream.  Set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, it is the paralleled stories of Sarah Goldfarb and her heroin addicted son Harry, as they enter ill-fated quests for better lives. Sarah is a lonely old woman whose ultimate dream is to lose weight so she can appear on a television game show.  Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and best friend Tyrone want to circumvent responsibilities and achieve their dreams by selling drugs.  Shortcuts in life soon become the antagonist, as Sarah becomes emaciated and delusional from amphetamine-laced diet pills and Harry suffers his own unspeakable horrors of addiction.

Requiem tells the universal story of seeking improvement in an upgraded and techno-colored life. It is about what happens when we choose to take more than we give: the failure of the American Dream. The consequences lie in the destructiveness of the soul, something that can happen to a group of friends planning to get an ounce of pure heroin or to a blameless old woman, nestled alone in her apartment, obsessing about her chance to get on television.



Selby succeeds in showing the downward trajectory of these four central characters by writing with an unwavering sense of compassion. Although they fail in achieving what they believe to be their tickets to better futures, he teaches us that love and empathy are the only way to save their souls, that there is a discernable difference between selfish materialism and the American Dream.

In 1986 Selby published a collection of short stories entitled Song of the Silent Snow. The collection included fifteen stories and covered over two decades of writing. The stories were crafted with typical Selby compassion, exploring the mundane failures of American culture.

Selby spent the next decade in literary silence. In 1989 a film adaptation of Last Exit to Brooklyn was made by German film maker Uli Edel. Selby made a cameo as a taxi driver in the film which stared Stephen Lang and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It was successful both critically and commercially and once again boosted Hubert Selby’s popularity as a transgressive writer, finding him a new and younger audience. It was during this time that the punk rock-luminary Henry Rollins linked up with Selby and expanded his readership by setting up recording sessions and booking readings and appearances all around the world.

In 1998 Selby came out with his acclaimed comeback novel, The Willow Tree.  The Willow Tree is considered the gentlest work in Selby’s catalog, a story that is filled with hope and forgiveness.  It is the unlikely tale of a bond between a vengeful African-American teen and an older Jewish man, who becomes his pathway toward redemption. The novel was attacked by critics for being too derivative and lacking the rawness of his previous works. Fans celebrated The Willow Tree for Selby’s willingness to give light to his idiosyncratic dark style.

Requiem for a Dream was adapted to a film in 2000 by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. The film stared Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, Jennifer Connelly, and Ellen Burstyn. Hubert Selby Jr. again had a cameo as a trash talking prison guard and Ellen Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. It was during this time that Selby taught creative writing at the University of Southern California.

Waiting Period was Selby’s final  novel and was published in 2002.  It tells the story of a disgruntled war veteran who attempts to purchase a hand gun to commit suicide but is stopped due to a five day waiting period. In the time that it takes to get the gun he decides to go on a mass murder spree and kill people that finds despicable. The novel is laced with ambiguous voices that the protagonist hears that could be perceived as either God or the devil. Waiting Period was unsuccessful commercially and was brutally attacked by critics for lacking Selby’s signature naturalism.

Hubert Selby Jr. died from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on April 26, 2004. The American Dream was a major fixture in all of Selby’s books.  He wrote about the loss of opportunity and the failures committed by disdainful characters. This was all written with a great sense of love and empathy, no matter how low a person was in his stories, there was always a sense of hope because he sketched them with compassion. This was his antidote for the failure of the American Dream:  that we must transcend failure by loving those around us. The American Dream failed in his stories because of greed, lack of love, selfishness, and materialism.  Selby’s greatest gift was teaching us that if we just follow our hearts, if we stop taking shortcuts, It/ll be better tomorrow.

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Ryan Leone

Posts

Ryan Leone is the author of Wasting Talent. He lives in Los Angeles.

5 responses to Hubert Selby Jr’s American Dream

  1. Love the style of this authors writing!.. Read and loved his book wasting talent

  2. I am new to Hubert’s work, in fact the author of this essay was the person to direct me to him. I am currently reading Last Exit to Brooklyn and it is amazing.

    It is nice to find out a bit of background on the author you are reading and this essay does a wonderful job. Really liked the last line “It/ll be better tomorrow”

    Great Job Ryan.

  3. I’ve also read Leone’s book Wasting Talent I get the idea that this article shows where he gets a lot of his inspiration from and who his literary idols are. Very interesting and informative article. I love hearing about the history of well known writers/artists and the road they had to make it through in order to succeed/survive. Seems like the best writers always have the worst lives. Lol.

  4. When I read Last Exit for the second time when I was a youngster, I thought that his use of bible quotes were about forgiveness.

    I lived in the neighborhood where Last Exit was filmed and managed to get Selby to autograph my books. There was a crew there filming him and a couple of childhood friends walking around the neighborhood, reminiscing. It may have been part of the production. I’ve never seen it though.

  5. Bay Ridge has never been a “dilapidated” section of Brooklyn. I’m born and raised and still live here, my parents were born and raised here.

    My grandparents were born and raised in Brooklyn – on my Mother’s side in the Sunset Park area above 3rd Ave. (which Last Exit was primarily set in but below 3rd by the Army Terminal – not the Army Base which is in Bay Ridge) and on my father’s side in Gowanus/Red Hook/Vinegar Hill areas (Navy Street and Garfield Place – my great grandmother was raised as cousins with Al Capone and her mother was the midwife that delivered Al and his siblings. Al walked her over the Gowanus Canal to her first day of Kindergarten)

    So I know the real Brooklyn, the old Brooklyn (before gentrification) and I know Bay Ridge and yes there are seedy parts and gangs and class struggles and drugs…

    But it always makes me laugh when I read something about the rough and tumble Brooklyn that Selby supposedly grew up in, when I know for a fact that he grew up in a beautiful area since my Grandparents all settled here in the 1940s opting to get out of the rougher areas of Sunset Park and Red Hook/Gowanus Canal)

    I’m sure Selby’s eyes were opened to a lot more material through his time in the merchant marines than through his boyhood in Bay Ridge.

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