Tuesday, October 30, 2012

22. Last Exit To Brooklyn

By Hubert Selby, Jr.

This was my first Hubert Selby Jr book and, man, it was pretty intense. I watched the 1989 film many years ago so had a good idea of the subject matter I’d be encountering. Still, it has taken me several months to finish reading Last Exit To Brooklyn as I'd read bits of it at a time when in between other novels (and pregnancy books!). There was only so much I can take looking inside the wretched lives of lower class Brooklynites in the 1950’s.

Each of the six chapters focuses on a character and their personal turmoil with usually the same recurring characters in each story. The Queen Is Dead section featured the most pathetic portrayal of unrequited love I have ever read. Georgette, a transvestite hooker so lacking in self-awareness and introspection, that her irrational longing for macho douchebag Vinnie and her child-like internal monologue made me think of her as an adolescent chimpanzee.

The most notorious story of all was probably Tralala, in which the title character, a foul-mouthed prostitute and thief, falls into a self-destructive bender and voluntarily gets gang-raped. This was without doubt the most intense portrayal of pure, unadulterated female rage and self-hatred I have ever encountered.

And then there was Strike. All the characters in Last Exit to Brooklyn so far have been pathetic, unlikable losers in their own way, but Harry, a closeted homosexual and wife-beater, really took the cake. As a barely competent machinist and union rep, he gained temporary status and importance when his factory went on a several months long strike. I found him to be the most detestable creature in LEtB, a real nasty piece of work. The only bright side to Harry’s chapter was that it featured some of the more darkly funny passages in the book:

His stomach knotted, a slight nausea starting. He went into the living room. Mary dressed the baby and put him in the crib. Harry heard her jostling the crib. Heard the baby sucking on his bottle. The muscles and nerves of Harrys body twisted and vibrated. He wished to krist he could take the sounds and shove them up her ass. Take the goddamn kid and jam it back up her snatch.


All of the characters lacked any shred of insight into their own interior lives (let alone other people’s) that you wondered if they even had a soul. That and Selby’s unique stream-of-consciousness style made me think of the first-person narration of an adolescent chimpanzee from Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. I guess Selby had this exact thing in mind when he wrote Landsend where a group of women on a bench were giggling and grooming each other, actually looking for nits in each other’s hair!

Last Exit To Brooklyn was not exactly a pleasant trip, and it won't be easy to forget its raw, emotional energy.

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