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Authors: Hubert Selby Jr.

Last Exit to Brooklyn

BOOK: Last Exit to Brooklyn
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Last Exit to Brooklyn

with an Introduction by Irvine Welsh


Table of Contents

Part I: Another Day Another Dollar
Part II: The Queen Is Dead
Part III: And Baby Makes Three
Part IV: Tralala
Part V: Strike
Part VI: Coda



Hubert Selby Jr. was born in Brooklyn in 1928. At the age of fifteen, he dropped out of school and went to sea with the merchant marine. While at sea he was diagnosed with lung disease. With no other way to make a living, he decided to try writing: ‘I knew the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.’ In 1964 he completed his first book,
Last Exit to Brooklyn,
which has since become a cult classic. In 1966, it was the subject of an obscenity trial in the UK. His other books include
The Room, The Demon, Requiem for a Dream, Song of the Silent Snow, The Willow Tree
Waiting Period
. Hubert Selby Jr. died in Highland Park, Los Angeles, California in April 2004.

Irvine Welsh is the author of several collections of stories and novels.
Trainspotting, The Acid House, Ecstasy
have been made into films, while most of his other novels have been adapted for stage. Welsh is also a screenwriter, film producer and director.

This book is dedicated, with love, to Gil.


I never had the honour of meeting Hubert Selby, though we chatted at length on the telephone one memorable afternoon. I was in Edinburgh, he was in Los Angeles, and our conversation was set up by a magazine who were doing a novels-into-film feature. They wanted to compare my adaptation experience on my first book,
with Hubert’s seminal
Last Exit to Brooklyn
, which had obviously been such a big influence on my own novel. (I’m taking the irritating licence of refering to him as ‘Hubert’ as we quickly got on first-name terms. I doubt very much that he’d mind.)

It’s often said that it’s a mistake to meet your heroes, albeit in this case, by phone. Also, I’d just read an interview with Martin Amis, where he candidly stated something to the effect of, ‘you hate younger writers, you just do.’ Now that I’m older, this makes perfect sense; they are by definition, more of this time, and are basically here to replace you. So I admit to a degree of trepidation when I picked up the phone, half-expecting a gnarled, tetchy old crust, replying to my questions with gruff, impatient monosyllabic responses. However, Hubert couldn’t have been more gracious, engaging and, to my surprise, as interested and knowledgable about my writing as I was about his. That was a particularly disquieting and uncanny concept; that the guy who wrote
Last Exit to Brooklyn
had actually read and liked
stuff. Since then, I’ve generally tried to be kind to younger writers. (Which is very different from saying that I’ve always been successful in this mission.) Hubert Selby tried to be kind to younger writers. He mentored my friend, Chicago writer Don De Grazia,
with his debut novel
American Skin
. De Grazia described ‘Cubby’ (as Hubert liked to be known) as a wise and committed guide, generous with his time and input.

So Hubert and I chatted for quite some time, our conversation ebbing and flowing over books, films, travel and personal life. We were at it so long it probably would have almost been cheaper for the magazine to have flown me to L.A. We’d arranged to hook up when I was next in that neck of the woods, though even down the phoneline, I could discern that his health was failing. So sadly, we never got to meet up, and he died in Los Angeles on 26 April 2004, of chronic pulmonary disease, around eighteen months after our discussion. He was of the generation where the damage to health was often done in early life; it wasn’t the writerly hedonism of drug highs and shots of liquor quaffed from too many barstools, but a childhood of poverty which left him an easy mark for tuberculosis, the effects of which the California sun didn’t exacerbate but couldn’t cure. The radical surgery perfomed to save his life as a young man involved the removal of a lung and an unfeasible amount of ribs, and he subsequently lived in constant pain and discomfort.

A native New Yorker and the son of an engineer who became a merchant seaman, Hubert Selby Jr. grew up in Brooklyn. At the age of fifteen, he dropped out of school, and in 1944 took the family route into the US merchant marine, witnessing the end of World War II. While stationed in Germany he contracted tuberculosis and spent nearly four years in hospitals and other institutions. Until then he had never read a book, but as he later contended, ‘lying in bed also gives you a greater opportunity than usual to look inside yourself and find out exactly what’s going on. That’s where it all started: reading and then a desire to write.’

On his return to civilian life, the painfully thin aspiring pensmith worked at an insurance agency by day, while his night hours were devoted to writing. ‘I had an obsession to do something with my life before I died. And I just sat in front of that typewriter every day for six years until I learned how to write.’

This single-mindedness, accompanied by his poor health and
attendant drug use, didn’t make for a stable personal life, and Selby had two short-lived marriages. However, it bore creative fruit in the form of his amazing debut novel.
Last Exit To Brooklyn
started life serialized in literary magazines before being released in 1964 by the innovative Grove Press, who had published the likes of Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs.
magazine disparagingly called it ‘Grove’s dirty book of the month,’ and the novel immediately excited critics to express both revulsion and admiration. It was banned in Italy, and the subject of an obscenity trail in the UK, this immediately informing us that
Last Exit to Brooklyn
was hitting the right spot. Little needs to be said about that trial; it was the usual stuffy British establishment affair of teeth-gnashing, hand-wringing, flatulence and pomp, which was, of course, exposed as having no substance or relevance when the book was discussed on its actual literary merits.

In 1967 Selby was arrested and jailed for the possession of heroin. This would be a formative experience for most people, but particularly so for a man not expected to enjoy a long life due to his poor physical condition. Determined not find himself in such circumstances again, Selby liberated himself from drug addiction and alcohol dependence, largely through the force of his own will, and started to write again. After two failed marriages, it was third time lucky as he wed Suzanne Shaw in 1969. This was the relationship that would sustain and nourish him personally and creatively. He moved his young family to Los Angeles and its kinder climate, where he wrote screenplays and television scripts and taught creative writing at the University of Southern California as an adjunct professor. Although generally more softly spoken than his manic protagonists, his cool charisma and sharp mind ensured that his live performances were a highlight of the literary circuit.

A lot has been made of Selby’s self-medication with opiates, alcohol and other painkillers, to battle the constant torment left by his respitory issues and their surgical ‘cures’, and also the effect of such suffering and isolation on his imagination. I’ll resist the temptation to indulge in those gaudy speculations; the fact is that nobody, including Selby himself, could be expected to gauge the
extent to which illness and medication fuelled an obviously restless and uniquely inventive mind. Let’s just say there was certainly some interface, and leave it at that.

What may be less contentious was Selby’s sense that the clock was ticking and his lifespan would likely be limited. The impact of this realization on a young man, as he was then, cannot be underestimated. (Though Selby would outstrip by several decades his grimest prognosis, and thus the lifespans of many of those physicians who made such predictions.) On this journey he left behind six novels, five of which excel in different ways, with three of them, including the one you are holding, classic works of literature at its most transgressive. Reading
Last Exit to Brooklyn
, you will literally hear the typewriter keys pounding: the rage against the dying of the light.

I was in my teens when I first read this novel. It’s hard to explain the monumental impact this book had on me. Its raw power, its resolutely working-class social milleu, its compassion and honesty, just blew me away. When I found it, through the happy accident of browsing in a bookshop, it was like meeting an old friend. I knew a book like
Last Exit to Brooklyn
had to exist somewhere, but I simply couldn’t find it anywhere in British literature. When I did, the shock of affirmation was intense; I physically shook and buzzed my way through its pages, and it literally really did change my life.

What did I fall in love with? The vibrant, living language of the novel, and how it took me right onto those unforgiving streets in the shadow of the Brooklyn docks. Its seemingly chaotic, episodic style, divided into six sections, each prefaced by a biblical quote. Most of all, I think I was entranced by the characters and their doomed relationship with love; Georgette (the transvestite hooker)’s unrequited desire for the hoodlum Vinnie, the tragic Tralala’s rejection of the love of a good man (in favour of a harsh life of street prostitution which culminated in the notorious gang-bang scene), because she felt self-defeatingly unworthy, and Harry, the union leader, hating the sex with his insatiable wife but lusting after the drag queens and street thugs he lavishes the strike funds on. Every
one of them trapped by the culture and expectations of the streets they were mired in into commiting some kind of social
And how, while his characters may have beeen stumbling around in the darkness, they were always groping for the lightswitch. After
Last Exit to Brooklyn
, with every other novel I read, it seemed as if the writer was hitting that keyboard wearing rubber gloves.

In this, Selby’s debut novel, there was no sanitizing the victims of western industrial capitalism, and no socialistic airbrushing of those characters to make them fit into the false and offensive ‘dignity of the working-man’ template. So positive-image merchants of either right or left are likely to find little succour in
Last Exit to Brooklyn
. But they should cast aside preconceptions, sit back and read, and just listen to the music. This book sings a dark, beautiful and resonant ballad of the sort very few others have been able to match.

Ironically, Brooklyn, or at least the part that Selby wrote about, has been transformed by Manhattan overspill into a vibrant global marketplace of urban cool. It’s the home of America’s most cutting-edge rock bands, a colony of artists, and now one of the monikers of choice for young celebrities and the children of famous couples and those who would slavishly follow them. Subsequently, Selby’s Brooklyn has been pushed outwards into projects that most people visiting or working in New York City will scarcely see, outside of a glance from the highway or a commuter train. Yet precisely because our urban economics and town planning have become so adroit at hiding the ugly fall-out of the system’s losers from our sensitive bourgeois eyes, Selby’s bleak humanity now seems at more of a premium than ever. He once remarked that while the
New York Times
wouldn’t review his books, he’d bet they’d publish his obituary. And that was his final victory; his literary bombs might have seemed merely incendiary, but they also packed a devastating fallout.

BOOK: Last Exit to Brooklyn
5.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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