No doubt about it, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a masterpiece. There are very few books that I can honestly describe in such a manner (Resurrection Man, American Psycho, The Butcher Boy, Crash, Post Office, Junky, among others) but I am utterly confident in placing Last Exit ... into this category.
While all the books listed above may seem disparate to the untrained eye, there are themes that run through all of them: the location as character, how the individual is driven to extreme acts because of their surroundings, how fact and fiction can intertwine and how language plays a role in every day life.
Hospitalised and bed ridden for many years due to various lung ailments, Selby Jr famously said:
I knew that, someday, I was gonna die. And, I knew before I died, two things would happen to me. That, number one, I would regret my entire life. And, number two, I would want to live my life over again.
This sense of desperation and catharsis runs through Last Exit to Brooklyn. Like Anthony Burgess with A Clockwork Orange, Selby Jr took a pen and nailed his demons to the page. And we are much richer for this act of expression. With no formal training, and no pre-conceived concept of what made "good" or "bad" writing, Selby Jr was a revolutionary in American fiction. Although markedly different from the Beats (who had given us William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac) and the gonzo journalism of (the highly overrated) Hunter S. Thompson, he was more in line with Charles Bukowski: someone who lived the low life and could wax lyrical on the lifestyle.
More a collection of short stories set in the same neighbourhood than a traditional novel (a trait borrowed by Irvine Welsh for Trainspotting), Selby Jr takes the reader through Sunset Park, Brooklyn and shows us the people who live there and what struggles they have to endure.
From teenage drag queen Georgette's abusive relationship with and unrequited love for greaser Vinnie (who can't stay out of trouble with the law), through to Tralala whose life consists of propositioning soldiers and sailors for money and (notoriously) Harry, the deeply closeted corrupt union rep. This book pulls the rock up from the ground and lets the reader explore unknown territories.
With Brooklyn linking each tale, the area becomes a character in itself. It's a homely, but run down area with crowded living arrangements hosting a number of races and ethnicities. Their ancestors came to America in search of a better life, but the descendants know nothing other than grinding poverty, crime and an area that is as much a prison as it is home.
Selby Jr sums it up perfectly with this passage:
In the winter everyones (sic) hate was bare if you looked. She saw hate in the icicles that hung from her window; she saw it in the dirty slush on the streets; she heard it in the hail that scratched her window and bit her face; she could see it in the lowered heads hurrying to warm homes …
Dialogue wise, it's unique because of the non use of quotation marks, which allows the dialogue to run together with the descriptions. And with the descriptions being as incredibly vivid as the above quotation, the harshness of the dialogue, as well as the use of slang and conjunctions, drags the reader further and further into the neighbourhood where the bins haven't been emptied for weeks and where gangs of greasers attack people cavorting with conspiring girls:
Three drunken rebel soldiers were going back to the Base after buying drinks for a couple of whores in a neighbourhood bar and were thrown out when they started a fight after the whores left them...They stopped when they heard Rosie shout and watched as she staggered back from the slap, Freddy grabbing her by the neck. Go giter little boy. Hey, dont chuall know youre not to fuck girls on the street.… They laughed and yelled and Freddy let go of Rosie and turned and looked at them for a second then yelled at them to go fuck their mothers, ya cottonpickin bastards. I hear shes good hump (sic).
A Christian (each story begins with a Bible quotation), Selby Jr manages to portray these characters as souls trapped in a pre-determined destiny. Even though they may be, superficially, seemingly hard to sympathise with, there are elements of humanity that shine throughout their actions.
To take two examples, Tralala is a hardened veteran of Brooklyn's streets, battling with the greasers her own age as much as the soldiers who view her as a way to shoot their load for the evening. When she comes across a soldier who wants to spend time with her, we see a chink in her defences.
Another example is Harry. Any time I read this book, I cannot help but find myself thinking that he is utterly worthless and without any redeeming features. Yet, Selby Jr, through little touches, depicts him as a man out of time and one who has been lied to his whole life, leading to him adopting the persona that we see throughout his segment.
The fact that the book can openly pursue such a characterisation, while still allowing room for me to think of Harry as a waste of flesh and organs, is a testament to the writing of Selby Jr.
Notably, both chapters involving Tralala and Harry have notorious and deeply disturbing endings. Although Selby Jr may have been a Christian, he also knew the power of the streets. These characters discover new elements about themselves, but it does them no good. Sunset Park has a hold on these characters that will drag them back once street justice is administered.
The most noted chapter, 'The Queen is Dead' (later used by The Smiths as a title for their most acclaimed album), deals with Georgette and her day to day life as a drag queen (the terminology used in the book, as today she'd be considered transgender). Although she initially comes across as an annoying, spoilt brat, the reader's sympathy is turned whenever her brother screams abuse at her and her sympathetic mother. Insecure masculinity has never been so enraging. The descent into drug addled oblivion with her status chasing, money grabbing drag queen friends is unsurprising, but still resoundingly tragic. It's depicted as a necessity as opposed to an attempt to "turn on, tune in and drop out" (to quote Timothy Leary), and this furthers Georgette's deluded mindset.
Author and barrister John Mortimer spoke at the appeal:
Judge Rogers had said in the original trial that Last Exit... was a shocking, disgusting book...I said that was irrelevant. I invented an argument... the 'aversive' defence: that the words were so awful they would have the opposite effect...Selby's graphic description of the degradation of Brooklyn life was both 'compassionate and condemnatory'. The only effect that it would produce in any but a minute lunatic fringe of readers would be horror, revulsion and pity...
Unsurprisingly, the verdict was overturned, setting a precedent for any attempts to prosecute texts as "obscene" in UK law.
In light of this, it's not surprising that the novel was considered unfilmable for many years. However, 1989 saw an adaptation to the cinema starring Jennifer Jason Leigh (the tagline being "The novel that shocked the world is now a movie.")
Although some of the more nasty elements have been toned down (Stephen Lang's Harry for example) and some of the casting doesn't quite work (Lang, again, is too smooth looking to play a character once earmarked for Robert De Niro, who would have been perfect), it's an admirable attempt and one certainly worth watching. Viewers unaware of the novel have been reported being shocked at how downbeat the film is. It's just as well they never read the book...
In a contemporary review, Allan Ginsberg proclaimed that Last Exit to Brooklyn will "explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years." And he was bang on the money. This novel will take you through every possible emotion and leave you drained. You will read about people long considered the scum of society. You may be sympathetic, you may be horrified. But you'll be left with their tales in your thoughts. People like this need someone like Selby Jr to tell their tales, to allow then a chance to rise above their surroundings before being pulled back to their destiny by the power of the streets.
Hubert Selby Jr, 1964, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Penguin Classics, ISBN-13: 978-0141195650
➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
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