Written in 1964 by Hubert Selby Jr. (1928-2004), “Last Exit to Brooklyn” is a profoundly disturbing book that many have just, short minded, considered to be pure and simply obscenity produced by a sick mind. It is fueled with rage, provocation and violence. Due to his blunt treatment of lust, homosexuality, rape, brutality and drug dependence, Selby Jr’s book was subjected to an obscenity trial in England and banned in Italy. For me it is a masterpiece (of grotesque), for it is both abject and human while showing human complexity. This book belongs to the category of books that have the power to disturb the world, to transform the way we see ourselves – and each other. What to think and make of it remains disturbingly open, even today.
It is the most profane of books, since the writer himself declines his role as “God” and the reader is left with a great responsibility of what to make of it. Concerning this Hubert Selby Jr says:
“I have no right to impose myself, in any way, between the reader and the people in the story. It is my job, as a writer, to fulfil the responsibility to the story that has been given me to write. So often I will see these people making decisions, and taking actions, that will lead to a disaster and want to change the story, but I do not have the right to do that. I must simply honour their lives and allow them to follow their own path, and not interfere in the natural evolution of their lives. (…) If there was a message in the work it is in the lives of the people, their story and how they live it. Who cares about what I think of such matters”. (Selby Jr, 2004, p. viii)
All the sordid stories in it take place in Brooklyn in the 50’s by the riverbank. “Last Exit to Brooklyn” is about the struggle for survival taking place in the streets, and how such struggle dictates behaviors. The background is a long ongoing strike that represents a breach in everyday life; men are sitting in bars all day, bored, trying to avoid their wife’s whining about having to live shortly on Union provisions. The tension just keeps on rising until everything gets out of control. Despite that it becomes more and more violent and sadist as we read, we grow to see that the characters are only, poor human bastards. We cannot help but feel sympathy and disgust, for their flaws, secret and frustrated desires, ridiculous actions and petty ambitions. It speaks of the most unimaginable and horrifying things but then, it is only talking about human nature, even if of the dark side of it. Bottom line, all stories are dealing with the irruption of the grotesque, for repressed forces must find an escape.
Harry, Georgette and Tralala, are nothing but poor human devils that end shattered by the powerful discovery of love/passion and literally end lynched, dead and tortured by it. Harry, exploiting the advantages of his new job as responsible for the strike office, literally starts buying respect and love. He is intoxicated by the power his new position gives him and the discovery of love for the first time in his life, all at the expenses of the ongoing strike. He is escaping from the tediousness of marriage life and the disgust for his wife’s touch, in the arms of a sophisticated queer. Except, this is only to last while he can afford such love. In fact, once his union boss discovers he has been taking money for his own benefit, he is dismissed and his whole dreamy world tumbles down. In face of rejection, he becomes absolutely despaired. Miserable and drunk he forces himself on a kid from the quarter, and when the kid escapes to denounce him to the local gangsters, he is left on his knees begging for the kind of love he has just recently discovered. He ends up lynched and crucified.
Vinnie, the gangster leader, is furthermore responsible for Georgette´s death, a queer that commits the error of following in love with him – and since he is a crook in need to prove his manhood by the hour, she ends up dead.
Tralala, a young and attractive prostitute, and in face of the impossibility to have real love and not being able to deal with the emptiness of her own life, goes on a descend to hell searching for self-inflicting punishment. She gets drunker than ever and free willingly decides to be screwed by every men in the bar. She offers herself as a sacrifice. She is drunk and she is laughing, and she keeps teasing the next in line. And then, she ends as a pile of meat on a wrecked car, covered in blood, semen and piss. The sickest of desire’s machines was set in motion – to hurt oneself -, and once it is released there is no stopping it until death.
By the end of the book one cannot help but wonder what kind of man imagined and wrote such a nightmare and for what reasons. Hubert Selby Jr words are very clarifying: “
I wanted to put the reader through an emotional experience. I wanted the reader to “feel” what the people were experiencing even if they were unaware of it. I did not want to limit the readers imagination, but to give them room so they could experience the story from their own POV, from their own lifes experiences”. (Selby Jr, 2004, p. ix)
The author started writing, as himself said, because he did not wanted to die without having done nothing with his life. His first piece of fiction was a suicide note, surely in result of the fact he was diagnosed Tuberculosis at the age of 18 – in a time where there was no cure and streptomycin was an experimental and very expensive drug for its treatment. He spent 3 years in bed in a hospital, had 10 ribs removed, one lung had been permanently collapsed and a section had been cut out of the other one. Selby Jr spent his life fighting for staying alive.
Indeed, the sleep of reason produces monsters and, of the most horrifying kind. And so we realize that the fabric of reason as an explanation for reality shows too many wholes in it. Enlightenment fails short. Not everything is under control, and from time to time we can grasp the “artificiality” underlying the given separation of worlds. Dante’s description of purgatory and hell, Sade’s writings, Pasolini’s movies and theater plays, Blake’s drawings and poetry, Goya’s Capricho’s, David Lynch´s films all a part of this other world always looking out at every corner, awaiting…