Hubert Selby Jr.

Hubert Selby Jr. (July 23, 1928 – April 26, 2004) was a 20th century American writer.


Hubert Selby Jr.

His novels include:

Last Exit to Brooklyn (novel, 1964)

The Room (novel, 1971)

The Demon (novel, 1976)

Requiem for a Dream (novel, 1978)

Song of the Silent Snow (short stories, 1986)

The Willow Tree (novel, 1998)

Waiting Period (novel, 2002)

Hubert Selby’s writing is challenging and confrontational. It deals with some of life’s harsh realities. If you like your fiction gentle and well-mannered, avoid Hubert Selby Jr. If however, you enjoy the writing of Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs, Angela Carter, Jean Genet, J.G. Ballard, or even Richard Brautigan, then you’ll probably like Selby’s work.

According to Selby, he began writing after an illness:

‘I was sitting at home and had a profound experience. I experienced, in all of my Being, that someday I was going to die, and it wouldn’t be like it had been happening, almost dying but somehow staying alive, but I would just die! And two things would happen right before I died: I would regret my entire life; I would want to live it over again. This terrified me. The thought that I would live my entire life, look at it and realize I blew it forced me to do something with my life.’

In style, Selby differs from other writers. He is not concerned with proper grammar, punctuation, or diction, although Selby’s work is internally consistent; he uses the same unorthodox techniques in most of his works. He indents his paragraphs with alternating lengths, often by simply dropping down one line when he is finished with a paragraph. Like Jack Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”, Selby’s writing was often completed in a fast, stream-of-consciousness style, and to facilitate this he replaces his apostrophes (’) with forward slashes (/) due to their closer proximity on his typewriter, thus allowing uninterrupted typing. He does not use quotation marks, and his dialogue might consist of a complete paragraph, with no denotation among alternating speakers. His prose is stripped down, bare and blunt.

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)

last exit

Selby’s experience with longshoremen, the homeless, thugs, pimps, transvestites, queers, addicts and the overall poverty-stricken community, is best expressed in his most praised work, Last Exit to Brooklyn. The novel was accepted and published in 1964 by Grove Press, which had already released works by William S. Burroughs. The novel was praised by many, including Allen Ginsberg, who predicted that it would “explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years”. But as with any controversial work, not everyone was happy. Because of the detailed depictions of homosexuality and drug addiction, as well as gang rape and other forms of human brutality and cruelty in the novel, it was prosecuted for obscenity in Great Britain in 1967. However, it was made into a brilliantly powerful film directed by Uli Edel in 1989.

last_exit_to_brooklyn_dvd

The screenplay is by Desmond Nakano. The movie starred Stephen Lang as Harry Black, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tralala, Burt Young as Big Joe, Peter Dobson as Vinnie, Jerry Orbach as Boyce, as well as Stephen Baldwin, Rutanya Alda and Sam Rockwell in small roles.

The Room (1971)

the room

The Room (1971) is a story about a nameless psychopath awaiting trial, suffering from a boil, and fantasizing sadistic revenge dreams of rape and hatred. Shelby exposes readers to the inner mind of his violent and tortured character: “Well, anyway, time has to pass. But sometimes its so goddam long. And hang on you like a monkey. Like its going to suck the blood out of you. Or squeeze your guts out. And sometimes it flies. Just flies. And is gone somewhere, somehow, before you know it was even here. As if time is only here to make you miserable.” The Room received positive reviews. Selby himself described The Room as “the most disturbing book ever written”, and he noted that he could not read it for decades after writing it. Selby described the critical reception of the book as “the greatest reviews I’ve ever read in my life”, although in reality it was not well-received.


The Demon (1976)


selby-demon

The Demon (1976) is another story of a man possessed by lust and violence. Harry, the protagonist, is a young businessman. He has everything in his life but he chooses his own destruction: “We all cause everything that happens to us, whether we recognize it or not. That’s a cosmic law, which I also know from my own experience. I know from my own experience that when I send out hate, my life is filled with hate. There’s only one source of energy for my hate and that’s me. And there’s only one ultimate destination for my hate and that’s me.” (Selby in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1981)

Requiem for a Dream (1978)

requiem dream novel

Requiem for a Dream (1978) depicts drug addiction and a search for happiness. The central characters are Harry Goldfarb, his girlfriend Marion, Harry’s widowed mother Sara and his buddy Tyrone, who all are living in a nightmare but dreaming of a happy tomorrow.

requiem dvd

The novel was adapted for screen in 2001 (dir. by Darren Aronofsky) and contrasted heroin addiction to ordinary daydreams of success and fame.

Song of the Silent Snow (1986)

song silent snow

Song of the Silent Snow (1986) is a collection of 15 of Selby’s short stories, spanning several decades of work – the highlights include the titular story, ‘Liebesnacht’, ‘Hi Champ’, and the lyrically breathtaking ‘Of Whales and Dreams’. “For Mr. Selby, panic seems to be the prevailing emotion of contemporary life, the nexus of blurred identity and sexual violence.” (Robert Atwan in the New York Times, September 21, 1986)

The Willow Tree (1998)

willow tree

The Willow Tree (1998) is about a young African American boy, Bobby. He is nearly beaten to death in a gang fight. An old man, survivor of the holocaust, gives him shelter, and teaches him forgiveness.

Waiting Period (2002)

waiting period

Waiting Period (2002) is a David and Goliath story of a man who first plans to kill himself but then turns his violence against bureaucracy. “The book delivers a buttonholing monologue in which the florid prose of Henry Miller fuses with the urban paranoia of Taxi Driver.” (The Independent, 18 May 2002)

For the last 20 years of his life, Selby taught creative writing as an adjunct professor in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California. Selby often wryly noted that The New York Times would not review his books when they were published, but he predicted that they’d print his obituary.

Major works by Hubert Selby Jr. are:

Last Exit to Brooklyn (novel, 1964)

The Room (novel, 1971)

The Demon (novel, 1976)

Requiem for a Dream (novel, 1978)

Song of the Silent Snow (short stories, 1986)

The Willow Tree (novel, 1998)

Waiting Period (novel, 2002)


Here is a short film (made by R J Dent) about Hubert Selby Jr’s books:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1q0t3KCdRyA&feature=c4-overview&list=UUELnf5k7o9KvgFveBjmgzHg

Try any of them, particularly the first four books. Hubert Selby Jr’s novels and stories are powerful, taut, fast-paced and very moving.

www.rjdent.com


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One Response to “Hubert Selby Jr.”

  1. David Mason Says:

    This is a very helpful and illuminating post about Selby. He’s often overlooked because of Burroughs, who I see you also write about. Selby is often written off simply as ‘the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, as though that was the only book he wrote. Many people have not read his other novels. This post provides some much-needed information. Thanks.

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