Tag Archives: Last Exit to Brooklyn

Vengeance is mine. Want some? Hubert Selby’s Waiting Period

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Hubert Selby, Jr. is one of the true masters of 20th century literature.

An uncompromising, fearless and visceral writer from the outset with Last Exit to Brooklyn, Selby’s first novel arguably remains the most controversial fiction he ever published. It caused such outrage at the time of its publication, including being banned (in the UK) and there remain readers to this day that find it difficult to stomach. With an unrelenting power it conveys the lives of his overwhelmingly desperate characters: miserable, troubled, often extremely violent, amoral, women-hating, angry, self-loathing individuals. The novel remains an existential nightmare that most contemporary fiction can’t match for its intensity and dark vision of despair. (Click here to see my review of it on this site.)

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Waiting Period focuses on the huge frustration and anger that we all feel about the ‘forces’ in our life (read: bureaucracy, government and other institutions, suffocating status quo attitudes and behaviour, endless forms to fill in, a demanded subservience to authority).

There are several powerful reasons to read this novel: Most importantly, it gives a compelling, meaningful voice for those in society whom, for one or more reasons, are disenfranchised, struggling, oppressed, exploited; for those who are most often made silent by the oppressive forces and circumstances of their lives; the vast many who feel their lives are slowly in a state of entropy; wasting away, drained, the long-term neglected under-class; society’s invisible many.

The nameless first-person narrator of the story speaks directly to you, though the stream of words inside his head — frankly, it starts as a sluggish stream, reflecting his depression and evolves – regresses? You follow his thoughts and apparent actions as if in real-time; his Dostoyevskian his trough of despair; his unbearable state of being. 

As you “listen” to him, you soon understand he represents of the invisible whose lives are seeping away into nothingness.

Frustratingly for him, he has always been a responsible citizen: he’s served the government, done his duty (he’s a war veteran) and yet his life as we ‘meet’ him is consumed with the endless arbitrage of dealing with government bureaucracy to receive benefits that are rightly his.

Humiliated by facing this Dantesque nightmare, of having been continually ignored over too much time, and feeling, in conclusion, desperately suicidal, he decides to buy a gun and kill himself.

And this is where the novel suddenly takes a dramatic turn; a wild, lusting leap into the fantasy of revenge: When he applies to buy his handgun, there’s a glitch in the computer system for vetting those who buy them and the few days it takes for him to wait for delivery makes him radically re-interpret his future actions and purpose.

He decides, instead of killing himself, he should kill at least the principal figure who controls the finances of the government administration and who, automatically, continues to deny him his rightful claims to support.  Most especially, because you are reading the novel from his deeply personal, angry viewpoint, you are left with no choice as a reader but to figure out for yourself whether what he’s thinking, says he’s going to do and does, is simply fantasy and fiction or real truth, or a strange mixture of the two.

Is he enacting these thoughts in life as some sort of retribution for the tormented misery of his otherwise plodding, passive, lonely life, or has he in reality transfigured from potential suicide to an obsessive, relentless dark angel of destruction, a slayer of the demons who have made his life – and those of others — such a misery, as he thinks further on the matter, spiralling ever downwards into a more entrenched, visceral anger.

One aspect of Selby’s genius is that he enables you to experience these violent emotions, the narrator’s depression and sense of deprivation, frustration and anxiety of a Vet, changing over time to emotions that are manifestly pure vengeance.  And all the while you’re ‘hearing’ the narrator trying, always, to rationalise his behaviour, because he is determined to do the ‘right’ thing; he has always led an ethical, morally responsible and socially conformist life. 

You ask yourself during the course of reading the novel whether or not he’s ‘only’ unhinged from his terrible depression and miserable life, or is he becoming something/someone genuinely dangerous to others, as well as himself? 

What further draws you in — and again is a quality that Selby cleverly gives his narrator, is logic: whatever he’s thinking, he seems to do so with such unerring logic; but is it logic without a heart and therefore invidious, corrupt?  Or is it a logic that stems from a clarity of truth that leads him to such a violent conclusion in terms of action he feels compelled to take?

The novel’s sheer, unrelenting intensity and power of narrative — comparable to Celine, but more visceral, I think, going far beyond the nightmare quality envisaged by that superb modernist — seems to intend to draw you only to one conclusion and this point is yet another part of Selby’s genius: helplessly, as it were, inevitably, you feel — frankly, even justifiably — you should side with the narrator as he fantasises and commits acts of — well, what should we call them as we begin to find ourselves cheering for him, wanting him to commit these acts?  Have you, as the reader, become corrupted, being inside the narrator’s mind, or are you seeing things logically?  Is he actually seeing/doing these things he thinks of?  Are they thoughts or actions of ‘justifiable homicide with mitigating circumstances’?; Death Wish-like ‘executions’?  Well, Selby so cleverly reels you in that you can’t help but feel the character is not a vigilante but doing what is right and what is justified, period. (I know, scary thought, that.)

After all, consider for a moment those whom he claims to kills or intends to kill — keeping in mind, all the while a key question: if he is indeed actually killing or intending to do so, or simply day-dreaming; the dreams of a lost soul with nothing but fantasies to live for on his sad and sorry arse. He targets the person at the Veteran Association who smugly and shamelessly continues to deny him his right to his benefits; besides the most disgusting, sulphur-stenched unrepentant racists, who joyously celebrate together as an entire town for their peers who have sadistically murdered black people; the town folk thereafter glorifying such actions by yearly family festivities, fairground rides, barbecues, beer and hotdogs included.

Click on this image to go to Selby’s official website & other great details about his books & life

This is without a doubt an amazing novel: incredibly focused, relentless, overwhelming, addictive. And it packs one helluva punch. Yet it’s also deeply moving and, as with all Selby’s lost souls who are his characters, while he never justifies their actions, he can get into their hearts and minds so you know them as if they were a part of you or vice versa.  He never judges, simply tells you the story from inside his characters’ own minds; that is his ultimate genius, because you have nowhere and no one to turn to when immersed in the reading, but your own self and perspective. 

Waiting Period is an important novel and a literary classic.  It’s a howl of despair, anxiety, alienation and frustration screamed at the powerful, the institutions and society that Celine first articulated in the 1930s onwards and whom, with Selby’s fiction, a literary heir to his legacy was realised.  But since his death, who is there now that continues such a legacy and that writes so well about the dispossessed and the lives of those who remain nameless, underground and invisible?  Please do let me now if you have any reading recommendations and/or thoughts on any of the above.

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Filed under fiction, Hubert Selby, Jr., Last Exit to Brooklyn, literary classics, Waiting Period

Last Exit to Brooklyn – Still Selby’s best novel?

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…

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Filed under abuse of women, fiction, Hubert Selby, Jr., Jean-Paul Sartre, Last Exit to Brooklyn, literary classics, misogyny, Nausea, violence against women