“I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer” On Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exist to Brooklyn

Rarely have I encountered a less ambitious explanation of an author’s reasons for starting a literary career. But then again, Hubert Selby Jr. was no ordinary writer. Writing about the down and out, while struggling with poor health and addiction, one probably cares little about the literary establishment and its self-invented rules.

I used to avoid Selby. For some reason I always thought of his work as difficult. I don’t normally shy away from difficult books, but I was probably influenced by one of my brothers, who describes Requiem for a Dream’s film adaption as “the most depressing movie I’ve ever seen.” Hardly a glowing recommendation.

So why did I end up reading Last Exit to Brooklyn this week? No idea. I do believe that certain books can only be fully understood and appreciated at specific stages in your life. Perhaps I’ve finally reach such a stage myself.

In the introduction to my edition, fellow author Irvine Welsh claims that Last Exit to Brooklyn changed his life. It’s too early to tell whether the book has had the same effect on me – I only finished it yesterday – but it’s fair to say I’m impressed.

It’s not a book I would recommend willy-nilly to other readers. Selby’s style, with its unusual interpunction – or lack thereof – takes some getting used to. The novel contains many explicit and gruesome descriptions of sex and violence. This is not a book to give to your Auntie Beryl for Christmas.

What struck me, though, is the obvious compassion Selby feels for his characters. He does not hold back when describing how they make a mess of their lives, often because they don’t know any better or don’t have any other options, but he doesn’t blame them for failing. Despite the anger and darkness that permeates the narrative there’s always a glimmer of hope, however faint.

I find this comforting in uncertain times. I might be alone in this, but I once found a similar sense of hope in Céline’s Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, not exactly known as an uplifting novel either. Like Céline, Selby appears to show the reader that yes, life can be dark, but we just have to carry on and make the most of it.

Selby himself received literary recognition later in life, even though Last Exit to Brooklyn was the subject of a famous obscenity trial when it was first published. It’s easy to see how his work has influenced other writers I love and I’m sure I’ll explore his oeuvre in more depth later on. But perhaps I’m most impressed by how he approached the job of writing. There’s no secret, no ritual, it just has to be done. Just like life itself.

Image Pixabay via Pexels

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