Last Exit to Brooklyn
I have no idea how many of you have heard of, or read, the book with this title. It was published by Grove Press in 1964. I read it about then. I was nineteen, maybe twenty.
When I read that book, with its ripped-scab depictions of drug addicts and whores and transvestites and pitiless urban brutality, I'd not only never encountered anything remotely like this in my southeast Virginia 1950s and 60s background, I'd never read anything like it, either. I could see why people ban books. Not because of the content (though they'll give that as the reason), but because of the dark knowledge. No experience gives you that sense of private, potent affirmation like reading. That's one of its potion-like powers. Like a mantel you put across your shoulders that gives you unearthly strength by acknowldging you. And even though I'd never been to that grim part of the world, the Brooklyn waterfront, I knew it was real, and true, because of the writing. How bleak and bloody his world is, but just as I believe in the existence of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha country, I believe in Hubert Selby Jr's Brooklyn. You do not always have to visit a place to be certain it exists.
This was the complete opposite of what my 1950s proper prep school had told me about literature and writing. Those schools—then, anyway—were built to protect students from books like Last Exit to Brooklyn. Which is why you have to get away from places like that (school, church) as soon as you can. You have to encounter those books, those places, those people, especially if you want to be a writer.
Somewhere around 1980, I found myself in a loft in downtown New York City with Richard Price, the writer. Price wrote The Wanderers and Ladies' Man and the screenplays for Sea of Love and The Color of Money. I'd already read Ladies' Man by the time I met him, so I had something I could break the ice with. Somehow, we got on to Hubert Selby, Jr. Maybe he mentioned him. Maybe I asked him what authors he liked. In any case, I discovered he had been strongly influenced by Last Exit to Brooklyn. I can't recall for certain, but I think he said he'd even met Selby. We jumped right in and talked energetically about Last Exit to Brooklyn and its dark, steel power. Richard Price was the first true writer I'd met who acknowledged Selby's literary power. Price is from the Bronx, and he has that Bronx swagger and patois, and I could see the urban kinship between him and Selby. You can see it in Price's writing, too.
Selby got into my guts and mind like a twisting strand of DNA around the double helix. He fastened himself to me. I read him, and, for the first time, I felt the idea of responsibility in writing. That, as a writer, you have to be responsible to what you see and hear no matter how much that inner voice of yours says no, no, no.