Controversy has always surrounded Selby, Jr.’s writing. From the start, with Last Exit (being his first novel), his original UK publisher Calder and Boyers, faced government prosecution in 1967, under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. It was a major trial, especially as it was originally found guilty of being `obscene’, and because, more importantly, the Appeal in 1968 overturned that decision and paved way for a much more open-minded interpretation of literature as to merit.
In some interviews, and in one introduction to the novel that he wrote, Selby himself said that he when he was writing this novel (six years in the making), he `was aware of the rage and anger within’ (quoted from the QPB edition in 1994). He also acknowledged that, while he has no favourite among his novels, he singles out The Room, and then this novel, notably, because through it he `truly did learn how to write’ (quote from same QPB edition).
Set in New York in the late 1950s, the story grabs you from the start, conveying an incredibly raw, visceral, yet always disturbingly poetic quality throughout. It is superb for its genuine grittiness, horribly grim reality and ugliness of modern inner city life – of thought, attitude, action and feeling – both projected outwards, as well as internalised, all of which Selby captures through voices of the dispossessed, alienated, disenfranchised. Selby is mould naturalist/realist fiction, but he goes a significant step further, in that, often through his first-person character narratives/viewpoints, he achieves an hallucinatory quality whose intensity strengthens the realities he conveys.
One critic, James R. Giles, in his excellent study of Selby’s works, Understanding Hubert Selby, Jr. (Understanding Contemporary American Literature), wrote `It is true that, while all the characters in the novel are victimized by a brutal environment, they are guilty of moral failures that make their victimization complete and irrevocable’, and Selby does this by exploring without fear or judgement powerful themes that resonant as much today as they did on first publication in 1964 in the US: drug addiction, misogyny, violence of rape and beatings, prostitution, the relentless drudgery and alienation of most jobs as well as unemployment, without value or meaning and hate and a distressingly dark, twisted humour – when not expressed through seething resentment or explosive anger – permeates life in general.
I reckon, Dante would have regarded Last Exit as a worthy match to his own vision of Hell – especially through characters who represent the sick underbelly of the city: self-deluding, beaten-up prostitutes, incredibly violent youths and gangs, a desperately lonely, elderly woman who has no life other than pathetic memories of her dead husband and son, among others. As for disturbing, truly dark humour, one such example will give you a powerful sense of it: at one point, two women sitting chatting on a bench in a miserable New York housing project, joke about and look forward with sick, twisted glee to the prospect of a baby – crawling on an upper-storey tenement window-ledge – falling to its death: they’re disappointed by its being saved in the nick of time).
In particular, the portrayal of the lives of a handful of people is done with great psychological depth, narrated most often from the first-person viewpoint, in a stream-of-consciousness fashion that remains clear, coherent and compelling. These viewpoints capture their desperation, self-loathing, hatred and confusion about themselves and their environments: defiant yet self-deluding Georgette, a hip drag queen who is pathetically in love with Vinnie and convinced she can change him for the better and that he will truly love her; while he is a psychopathic and sociopathic gang leader interested in only in sadistic and often instant gratification; Tralala, a violently angry, predatory prostitute who ultimately is destroyed in the most horrifying way imaginable; Harry – interestingly, that name is ubiquitous among male characters in Selby’s fiction, acting as a synonym for the type of man who is misogynistic, dispossessed, angry, self-loathing, and self-deluding – who is a trade union leader, loathsome, selfish, arrogant and boring, who is despised or at best tolerated by his co-workers – and, worse, whose misogyny is so genuinely convincing and disturbing, which we hear, being `inside his head’, listening trapped to his banal voice, desperation, loathing and perspective, such that it makes Bateman’s misogyny in American Psycho appear not only over the top, but utterly unreal (and never mind Ellis’ darkly satirical intentions).
Rightly and insightfully so, one great critic describes Selby as a `clinician of violence … whose novels have the immediacy of art’ (Josephine Hendin, Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction Since 1945 (A Galaxy book)), which I think is true; likewise, he is a literary master of demonstrating through his characters a moral ugliness, misogyny and existential despair, and whose power as a novelist, I think, is unprecedented in fiction (Sartre’s famous Nausea (Penguin Modern Classics), by way of contrast, and yet also a great novel of existential despair, is a happy walk in the park compared with Selby’s vision). He is a truly remarkable writer, and, while he wrote six novels in his lifetime, I believe the most powerful and compelling (while not the darkest), remains Last Exit. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a genuine work of art, but its power is dark and troubling, so I would likewise highly recommend you stay clear of this novel if you find yourself in a depressed frame of mind…