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Treasuring Hubert Selby Jr
The author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream was a compassionate writer who truly understood addiction
‘His experience as an addict fuelled his creativity’ … Hubert Selby Jr in 1990. Photograph: KC Bailey/AP
For many non-academic readers, Frank Kermode, who died aged 90 last month, is perhaps best known for his spirited defence of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, at the obscenity trial surrounding it in 1966. According to the Daily Mail, observers described his appearance as “more [like] a Reith lecture than an investigation into alleged obscenity”. In the foreword to the book’s post-trial edition, written by the original publishers, John Calder and Marion Boyars, we are told that Kermode analysed the novel chapter by chapter, placing it firmly in “the tradition of American naturalistic literature, which … had developed from writers like Zola and Dickens”. Selby died in 2004, having suffered from ill health for most of his life. Although he wrote six novels and a collection of short stories, he is widely known only for Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream (made into a film by Darren Aronofsky in 2000). Since his death, and in spite of plaudits from Kermode, Anthony Burgess and Lou Reed, among many others, there has so far been little popular or critical reappraisal of his work. This is a shame. Selby should be regarded alongside Philip Roth and Norman Mailer as one of the great American novelists, and one who has helped us to understand the nature of addiction and the human condition better, perhaps, than any other.
It’s ironic that Last Exit’s varied portrait of soldiers, transvestites, prostitutes and factory workers in 50s Brooklyn is atypical of Selby’s output. While the novel, which can comfortably be read as a collection of interlinked short stories, is written in Selby’s familiar, informal street-style (minimal punctuation, the FREQUENT USE OF SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS and stream-of-consciousness passages) it is a broader, more socially concerned book than those that followed, and explores the author’s literary obsession: addictive behaviour, its manifestation and causes.
Falling ill with tuberculosis while at sea in 1947 and treated in New York, Selby became dependent on painkillers and later heroin. Although an addict, he was sober for much of his life (his 1976 novel The Demon is dedicated to Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous). Nevertheless, his experiences doubtless fuelled his project.
Selby’s second novel, published in 1971, was The Room, the almost unreadably dark story of a criminal locked in a remand cell, imagining the horrific vengeance he will mete out on his captors once released. It is a study in resentment, a phenomenon that, for Alcoholics Anonymous (the central text of the fellowship of the same name) “destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stems all forms of spiritual disease.”
The Demon charts a successful young executive’s descent into sex addiction and the darkness beyond it. Requiem for a Dream (1978) saw a return of the compassion that made the final sections of Last Exit so moving. Selby’s portrayal of the devastation of drug dependence as it rips through the lives of a widow, her son, his girlfriend and his best friend is perhaps one of the most moving in literature. Written in an unadorned style akin to blank verse, one can only marvel at the depth of Selby’s understanding. A book of short stories charting similar compulsions, The Song of Silent Snow, followed in 1986, and then two late novels, the last of which, Waiting Period, appeared in 2002.
A successor to Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, John Fante and Charles Bukowski, Selby’s influence can be detected in the work of modern writers including Richard Price, Irvine Welsh, James Frey and more recently Tony O’Neill and Richard Millward. In tracing Selby’s lineage, Kermode highlighted the deep compassion of this remarkable writer. Able to humanise addiction and to demonstrate how it is exacerbated by the consumerist motors of television and advertising, Selby is a novelist whose insight and humanity we should treasure for a long time to come.
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