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Hubert Selby Jr (1928-2004)


American writer whose works have received mixed reviews because of their frank treatment of lust, homosexuality, rape, brutality and drug dependence. Selby's best-known work, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), was the subject of an obscenity trial in England and banned in Italy.

"Malfie opened the door and grinned as they dragged Lee in, and Goldie shrieked and ran from the room, the door slamming behind her. She listened to Lee screaming and the guys slapping her and cursing as they ripped her dress off... then Goldie swallowed a half dozen bennies; Camille looked at Georgette, who hadnt moved (No, No! No you fucking bitch. VINNie VINNie... VINNIE!!! Not with Lee. I love you Vinnie. I love you. He will see my red spangled G string. Please Vinnie. Vinnie ...), Camille looked at Georgette then at Sal as he wobbled across the room toward her." (from Last Exit to Brooklyn)

Hubert Selby Jr. was born in New York City, the son of Hubert Selby Sr., an engineer and apartment building manager, and Adalin (Layne) Shelby. Before the birth of his son, Selby Sr. had served in the merchant marine. The family lived near 8th Avenue. Hubert Selby Jr. grew up in Brooklyn and attended Peter Styvesant High School for one year. In 1941, at the age of 15, he dropped out of school. In 1944 Selby joined the US merchant marines, and witnessed the end of World War II. While stationed in Germany he contracted tuberculosis and was treated through radical surgery – Selby lost 11 ribs and a lung.

Selby spent nearly four years in hospitals and other institutions. Until then he had never read a book, but as he later said, "lying in bed also gives you a greater opportunity than usual to look inside yourself and find exactly what's going on. . . . That's where it all started: reading and then a desire to write."

Like the protagonist in Nelson Algren's novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), Selby became addicted to morphine, but at hospital he was also given demerol, codeine, and various sleeping pills. In addition, he drank whenever he had the opportunity. After leaving hospital he lived a drifting life. He went to school for a secretarial course, had odd jobs, and became a member of group of young writers, which included Gilbert Sorrentino, Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Joel Oppenheimer, and Robert Creely. The group formed several little magazines, such as Yugen and Neon. In 1953, he married Inez Taylor; they divorced in 1960. By day Selby worked at an insurance agency, and by night he wrote. "...I had an obsession to do something with my life before I died", he recalled in an interview. "And I just sat in front of that typewriter every day for six years until I learned how to write."

Later on these years formed the background for the novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, which stirred critics to both revulsion and admiration. Time magazine called it "Grove's dirty book of the month." Selby's story, set in the 1950s, depicted outcasts of society, criminals and prostitutes, with a power which has not lost its edge over the decades. Essentially the novel was a collection of stories, held together by the scene, the waterfront of Brooklyn. In England Last Exit to Brooklyn was prosecuted in 1966 under the Obscene Publications Act. A prominent defender of the work was the literary critic Sir Frank Kermode, who appeared as a witness for the defense. Last Exit to Brooklyn was filmed in 1989, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as the young prostitute, in one of her most memorable roles.

Selby's early short prose appeared in the 1950s in such magazines as Kulchur and Black Mountain Review, which printed the first part of 'The Queen Is Dead'. 'Tralala', one of the stories of Last Exit, was published in the Provincetown Review, and was the subject of an obscenity trial in 1961. Fifteen of his stories were collected in Song of the Silent Snow (1986). Before publication of his first novel, Selby worked, amongst other things, as a seaman and as an insurance clerk. In the late fifties he founded with other aspiring writers the magazine Neon. Selby's agent, Sterling Lord, who was also Jack Kerouac's agent, sent his manuscript to Grove Press, the publisher of such writers as William Burroughs and John Rechy. The novel was accepted by Barney Rosset, who had bought the company in 1951.

In 1967 Selby was arrested for possession of heroin and was jailed. He freed himself from drug addiction and alcohol dependence and started to write again. After a brief second marriage with Judith Lumino in 1964 Selby married in 1969 Suzanne Shaw. He moved with his family to Los Angeles where he wrote screenplays and television scripts and taught creative writing at the University of Southern California as an adjunct professor. His spoken shows, which he began in 1987, gained wide popularity. Selby died of chronic pulmonary disease in Los Angeles on April 26, 2004. He was survived by his wife and four children.

Last Exit to Brooklyn was followed by The Room (1971), about a nameless psychopath awaiting trial, suffering from a boil, and fantasizing sadistic revenge dreams of rape and hatred. Whereas Dante depicted from the outside the souls of Purgatory, Shelby exposes to readers the inner mind of his violent and tortured character. "Well, anyway, time has to pass. But sometimes its so goddam long. And hang on you like a monkey. Like its going to suck the blood out of you. Or squeeze your guts out. And sometimes it flies. Just flies. An is gone somewhere, somehow, before you know it was even here. As if time is only here to make you miserable." This book, which was deliberately written to provoke middle-class readers, was in part inspired bt Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers (1948, rev. 1951).

The Demon (1976) was another story of a man possessed by lust and violence, but in style and form Selby abandoned experimentalism familiar from his earlier works. Harry White, the protagonist, is a young businessman; at the beginning he seems to be the opposite of Harry Black, an incompetent blue-collar worker, in Last Exit to Brooklyn. Success is within his grasp, but Harry chooses his own destruction. He is destroyed from within, by his self-loathing and spiritual sickness. "We all cause everything that happens to us, whether we recognize it or not. That's a cosmic law, which I also know from my own experience. I know from my own experience that when I send out hate, my life is filled with hate. There's only one source of energy for my hate and that's me. And there's only one ultimate destination for my hate and that's me." (Selby in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1981) Selby dedicated the book to Bill Wilson, a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Requiem for a Dream (1978) depicted a drug addiction and search for happiness. The central characters are Harry Goldfarb, his girlfriend Marion, Harry's widowed mother Sara and his buddy Tyrone, who all are living in a nightmare but dreaming of a happy tomorrow. The book was adapted for screen in 2001 (directed by Darren Aronofsky) and contrasted heroin addiction to ordinary daydreams of success and fame. Song of the Silent Snow from 1986 was a disappointment for the critics: "For Mr. Selby, panic seems to be the prevailing emotion of contemporary life, the nexus of blurred identity and sexual violence. "Song of the Silent Snow" fails to find the narrative grooves that made "Last Exit to Brooklyn" so memorable." (Robert Atwan in the New York Times, September 21, 1986)

After a long silence as a novelist, Selby published The Willow Tree (1998), about a young African American boy, Bobby. He is nearly beaten to death in a gang fight. An old man, survivor of the holocaust, gives him shelter, and teaches him forgiveness. Waiting Period (2002) was a David and Goliat story of a man who first plans to kill himself but then turns his violence against bureacracy. "The book delivers a buttonholing monologue in which the florid prose of Henry Miller fuses with the urban paranoia of Taxi Driver." (The Independent, 18 May 2002)

For further reading: Cult Fiction by Andrew Calcutt and Richard Shepard (1998); Understanding Hubert Selby, Jr. by James Richard Giles, Matthew Joseph Bruccoli (1998); The Reader's Companion to Twentieth Century Writers, ed. Peter Parker (1995). See also other writers connected to counterculture and underground movement after the beat movement: Charles Bukowski, Ken Kesey, John Rechy (b. 1934, City of Nights in 1963). Like Bukowski has his alter ego Henry Chinaski, the amebically changing character Harry appears in Selby's books in many disguises. Novels, essays, and memoirs about drug addiction: Thomas de Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822); Charles Baudelaire: Les Paradis artificiels: opium et haschisch (1860, translated as Artificial Paradises, 1971); Aleister Crowley: Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922); Aldous Huxley: The Doors of Perception (1954); William Burroughs: The Naked Lunch (1959); Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971); Donald Goines: Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie (1971); Christiane F: Autobiography of a Girl of the Streets and Heroin Addict (1979; tr. 1982); Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting (1993)

Selected works:

  • Last Exit to Brooklyn, 1964
    - Päätepysäkki: Brooklyn (suom. Markku Salo, 1983)
    - Film 1989, prod. Allied Filmmakers, Bavaria Film, Neue Constantin Film, screenplay Desmond Nakano, dir. Uli Edel, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Burt Young, Peter Dobson, Jerry Orbach. Selby himself appears as a cab driver. The story is set on the streets of 1952 Brooklyn, where violence rules the life of its desperate outcasts.
  • The Room, 1971
    - Hullun kertomus (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1974)
  • The Demon, 1976
  • Requiem for a Dream, 1978
    - Unelmien sielunmessu (suom. Markku Salo, 1985)
    - Film 2001, prod. Artisan Entertainment, Thousand Words, Sibling Productions, screenplay Hubert Selby Jr., Darren Aronofsky, dir. Darren Aronofsky, starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans. Requiem for a Dream: Screenplay, by Darren Aronofsky and Hubert Selby, Jr. (2000).
  • Song of the Silent Snow, 1986
  • Paradoxia: A Predator's Story / Lydia Lunch, 1997 (introduction)
  • The Willow Tree, 1998
  • Conversations With the Capeman: The Untold Story of Salvador Agron / Richard Jacoby, 2000 (introduction)
  • Waiting Period, 2002
    - Odotus (suom. Antti Eerikäinen, 2003)

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