Sunday, 7 July 2013

Hubert Selby Jr.- Last Exit to Brooklyn

Last Exit to Brooklyn
Penguin Modern Classics
 Hubert Selby Jr.
1964

“Sometimes we have the absolute certainty there's something inside us that's so hideous and monstrous that if we ever search it out we won't be able to stand looking at it. But it's when we're willing to come face to face with that demon that we face the angel.”

After diverting my attention from my typical reading material with the young adult novel Mortal Engines, I decided to return to my comfort zone of classic 20th century American literature, albeit with an author I'd never read before; Hubert Selby Jr. and Last Exit to Brooklyn. I had certain expectations going in to this book thanks to the small amount of knowledge I had of it beforehand, but what I found was a piece of fiction too complex in its depth and design for me to understand without really digging in to it. One thing was for certain early on; Last Exit to Brooklyn is definitely not comfort reading.

I'm the type of person that judges a book by its cover all the time (otherwise how do you know what it's called?)  and Brooklyn proudly proclaims that it was banned upon first publication in the UK, which peaked my interest, under the accusation of being exploitative pornography. That by itself wouldn't necessarily make it completely obscene, since artistic censorship in the west seems to almost always be completely random in that regard, but it does allow the book to revel in the glow of anti-establishment coolness before it even begins. Last Exit to Brooklyn is, in ways, a collection of short stories that offer a tinted window into the lives of various inhabitants of Brooklyn, all of whom have problems in the worst ways imaginable.

These problems, such as drug abuse, violent crime, rape, and every form of discrimination possible, are all topics and threats common to certain authors of the period; William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg etc, the uncensored evolution of beat poetry and alcoholism taken to new extremes, not just insulting the concept of the American Dream, but brutally beating and raping it until it likes it.  Fifty years on from then, the general modern day reader has encountered enough of this to desensitise him/her to the power of nasty topics by themselves, so for me content isn't enough.

The thing about Hubert Selby Jr. is that his prose is unique. At first, the long, meandering sentences reminded me of his contemporaries, and it wasn't until I delved deeper into the book that I started to understand the crucial differences. Like Burroughs et al, Selby explores the nature of human evil and drug psicosis with maximum intensity, but I found within Selby's characters a true sense of sorrowful humanity that left lasting imprints. There's less surrealism, as Selby focuses less on the trip (or the crime) than he does with the mental fall into despair. It's never presented overtly, but for me Selby's characters exude a loss of innocence, a fall from grace with enough memory to regret it, whereas Burroughs implies that no such innocence ever existed in the first place.

Gritty, grimy, unpleasant and intentionally so; Last Exit to Brooklyn is a supreme piece of literature, deserving of far more detailed praise and analysis than I can muster. Read it yourself, see what I mean.