“Yes my love, I hear him. Yes. He is blowing love. Love Vinnie… blowing love… no NO! O God no!!! Vinnie loves me. He loves me. It.
What can be said of a book that has been examined, cross-examined, analysed to the point of nauseam and picked apart by crows, that hasn’t said before? Hubert Selby Jr’s novel shows, in stark and bleak scenes, the underbelly of New York society. Giving the reader insight into characters that are at the bottom of the barrel of the Big Apple. You have the naïve and troubled transvestite, Georgette, the thieving, devious and troubled prostitute, Tralala and the raging, drinking and troubled union man, Harry. As you can tell, Selby Jr’s characters are all doomed from the get go. He writes a tragedy and at the end of the tunnel isn’t sunshine but merely another halogen bulb, illuminating the sign pointing towards another den of cheap beer and cheaper hand-jobs. This is by no means, a bad thing. Last Exit to Brooklyn is harrowing, and in parts, incredibly difficult to stomach. Selby Jr remains true to, for the most part, to the vernacular and slang that would have been used by the people who walked the streets. He was part of it. He roamed the streets and was part of the dregs. A drug addict for a substantial period, Selby Jr was all too acquainted with the likes of Georgette and Tralala. This is perhaps Last Exit to Brooklyn’s greatest strength, the sense and air of authenticity. No conversation seems forced or fabricated. It’s written in such a way that it seems that Selby Jr was hiding behind a grimy menu in a diner, or lingering at the edge of a bar, transcribing down the words. Mimicking the speak. Jotting down actions, not graphically, but like he was spying on them out the corner of his eye. Not wanting to draw unnecessary attention towards himself.
Last Exit to Brooklyn is not flawless. It’s a rough gem of a modern classic. The speech, however authentic, can be difficult to understand and take your eyes off the page for too long and you must re-adjust your vision. Adapt your brain back to these unknown and predominately outdated colloquialisms. Juxtaposed to the rather matter-of-factly way the way Harry grabs another beer or Georgette gets changed. The transition can necessitate a need to step back and process the previous couple of pages. Certain Jury members in the 60’s felt the same way.
British courts banned Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1967 but thankfully the decision was reversed the following year. Jury members were asked to read it and several gave up as they did not have a clue what was happening and what was being said. It caused upset and uproar and embarrassed and infuriated. It confused and bewildered. It remains an incredibly poignant, unforgettable and important read. Every generation has an author that encapsulates the period, for example, Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises and Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. Selby Jr does the same, not so much for a specific period, but for a specific culture. He presents us with the still beating and bloodied heart of the dark side of the American Dream. Read it, take your time, leave it on your shelf, and see if you can return to it in the future without a sense of sweaty palmed apprehension.