photo & text by nacrowe
there are some books that i feel like i was almost destined to appreciate and HUBERT SELBY JR.'s debut novel LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (GROVE PRESS, 1964) is undoubtedly one of them. for starters, its second chapter was the namesake for THE SMITHS' celebrated third album THE QUEEN IS DEAD (ROUGH TRADE, 1986). the novel basically confronts the reader with six vignettes of UNDERGROUND LIFE along the docks in BROOKLYN and the FORGOTTEN and UNACKNOWLEDGED COMMUNITIES that inhabit this LAWLESS expanse that are in a suspended state from mainstream AMERICA. these include TRANSGENDER SEX WORKERS, LABOR UNION OFFICIALS, DRAG QUEENS, SAILORS, HOMOSEXUALS, DOCK WORKERS and JUNKIES all scrambling and struggling to make their way in life. as with all SELBY novels, most major characters are on a steady decline, some falling victim to their own HUBRIS and AMBITION, while others fall prey to lost HOPE, ADDICTION and so on. LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN is no different with regards to this CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT quirk with nothing less than the AMERICAN DREAM seemingly on trial for the fraud that it is for these LOST COMMUNITIES.
i read LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN my senior year of high school and was taken aback by how RAW and TRANSGRESSIVE it was. that is not to say that SELBY did not exhibit immense EMPATHY and COMPASSION for his characters, but the acts showcased within are just so EXTREME. i cannot recall another book that has gang-rape in it. maybe you can, but i just cant. but the novel seems to be conveying a MENTALITY and WAY-OF-LIVING that is the very UNDERBELLY of AMERICAN CAPITALISM in which people are paying the price for our COLLECTIVE CONVENIENCE. the docks themselves represent an area in limbo, both ECONOMIC and PSYCHOLOGICAL. it is literally where foreign and domestic markets converge and everything has a price levied on it. where VALUE is assessed which is the lifeblood and heartbeat of MARKET CAPITALISM. SELBY just recognizes that the merchandise that is up for exchange in these regions includes people and all matters of VICE and HUMAN FRAILTY. these FORGOTTEN COMMUNITIES are in essence culturally TABOO and thus are beset by VIOLENCE and immense personal SUFFERING, all virtually in private, as a result of our collective inability to recognize our SHARED HUMANITY and look past our own QUIXOTIC notions of what reality actually consists of. it is the perfect metaphor for AMERICAN life in general, since these areas and people are so paramount to the health of the larger superstructure, yet UNEXAMINED and largely UNCONSIDERED in any meaningful detail. this is the sort of thing i have witnessed overseas my whole life, whether such be an UNDER-VENTILATED, OVER-CROWDED NIKE factory in CAMBODIA built next to the BURNED-DOWN and ABANDONED one next door or witnessing firsthand as a teenager the international opiate trade in NIGERIA. TRADE, CAPITALISM and the PROFIT MOTIVATION in the end degrades us all, just like it was presented nearly sixty years ago in LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN.
as a former high school english teacher, i always delighted in SELBY's IDIOSYNCRATIC and wholly NOVEL use of GRAMMAR and SYNTAX. he basically does away with COMMAS (,) and APOSTROPHES (') and replaces them with SLASHES (/). if someone passionately and angrily yells out a piece of DIALOGUE, he just writes it in ALL CAPS (FUCK YOU), which is oddly LOGICAL and makes sense it today's MODERN PHONE TEXTING CULTURE. my personal favorite quirk is SELBY's complete disregarding of the common convention of tagging a speaker after DIALOGUE (i.e. he/she said). this is confusing at first but his characters are so MEMORABLE and DYNAMIC that it becomes obvious rather quickly who is say what, which is an INTRIGUING technical accomplishment. i just appreciate anyone who can bend LANGUAGE and LITERARY CONVENTIONS to meet their needs and EXPECTATIONS and not the other way around, which often feels the case. sometimes i feel writers are just creating with their audience too much at front-of-mind. i love how SELBY lovingly disregards his reader and thereby paradoxically elevates them and assumes their INDIVIDUAL INTELLIGENCE in the exchange.
to mention LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN means i have to acknowledge the fact that it did court CONTROVERSY upon its release and was even the center of an obscenity trial in ENGLAND. this book, along with the rest of SELBY's catalogue, is absolutely meant for a mature audience with the ability to see past what are INTENSE descriptions of EXTREME situations and recognize the deeper fear of the DIRE consequences that come when we look past each other's INHERENT VALUE and SHARED HUMANITY and see only an INSTRUMENTAL means to an end such as PROFIT CREATION or SEXUAL EXPLOITATION. furthermore such objectives seem to be the very point in a CAPITALIST SOCIETY where literally everything and everyone is for sale. it is my belief that SELBY is presenting people struggling to hold onto their core sense of IDENTITY, of an INNER PURITY despite being victim to this hell-scape that is AMERICAN CONSUMERISM along the docks of BROOKLYN.
LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN is a LEGENDARY cult novel that is deserving, much like its equally UNCOMPROMISINGLY BRUTAL ULI EDEL-directed cinematic adaptation, of a much larger audience. required reading in my opinion.