I had at some point in the past started to read Hugh Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), but, for reasons I now can’t fathom, didn’t get very far. Perhaps at that moment I couldn’t summon up any enthusiasm for the kind of affectless prose that characterizes this book, but if so, it only convinces me I ought to struggle harder against my unexamined prejudices. On reading it now, I am almost shocked at how powerfully it affected me.
These days there are many collections of short stories that seek to create a hybrid of the novel and the story collection by focusing on a single character or location, or by trimming the narrative arc associated with novels through cutting up an underlying narrative into what might be called story-bits. Perhaps the earliest models of such a book would be Hamlin Garland’s Main-Traveled Roads or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but I have to say I would now judge Last Exit to Brooklyn to be the best example of this hybrid form I have read. If I had to label it either novel or story collection I would probably choose the latter, but that would still be misleading. The book has a unity of tone, style, and setting that in some ways makes it almost unique, at least in my reading.
Unified first of all by its Brooklyn setting, Last Exit focuses on the lives of several Brooklyn residents whose rather wretched lives sometimes crisscross past one another, and who frequently congregate at “the Greeks, a beatup all night diner near the Brooklyn airbase.” Among the characters are various street thugs, prostitutes and transvestites, a union official named Harry Black (in perhaps the book’s best story), and the inhabitants of a housing project. Their stories are depressing, to say the least, but they are told with such honesty and directness (mostly centered on what they do or what they’re thinking on the most obvious level–no fancy psychologizing) that at times they transcend their gloom to become truly terrifying.
What integrates the book most immediately and most successfully, however, is Selby’s style, which is plain but compelling, unadorned but carefully crafted. Here’s the beginning of “Tralala”:
Tralala was 15 the first time she was laid. There was no real passion. Just diversion. She hungout in the Greeks with the other neighborhood kids. Nothin to do. Sit and talk. Listen to the jukebox. Drink coffee. Bum cigarettes. Everything a drag. She said yes. In the park. 3 or 4 couples finding their own tree and grass. Actually she didn’t say yes. She said nothing. Tony or Vinnie or whoever it was just continued. They all met later at the exit. They grinned at each other. The guys felt real sharp. The girls walked in front and talked about it. They giggled and alluded. Tralala shrugged her shoulders. Getting laid was getting laid. . . .
One feels in reading Last Exit to Brooklyn that Selby has artfully fitted style to character and situation, the unpretentious language being necessary for depicting the almost primal conditions in which the characters live. Eschewing conventional paragraphing, quoted dialogue, and most forms of punctuation, Selby’s style in Last Exit at its austere best even rises to the level of a kind of derelict poetry. (Although one might also consider Selby’s method to involve a Oulipo-like constraint: an attempt to extend the no-frills approach to over 300 pages that otherwise portray events another writer might treat with melodramatic abundance.)
“Tralala” is the story of the title character’s ultimate and unavoidable degradation, and it is probably the story that comes closest to locating Last Exit to Brooklyn in the tradition of American Naturalism. (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets comes to mind.) It works very well in narrating the process by which conditions in mid-century New York make Tralala’s fate seem all too common. But I think my favorite story in the book is “Strike,” which narrates over its 100+ pages the downfall of Harry Black, a machinist who over the course of a months-long strike comes to learn (although he never confronts his feelings directly) why he has such loathing for his wife and child: He’s probably a homosexual, or at least has same-sex attractions, to which he gives in fairly readily. By the end of the story he has acted on his urges in such a way as to most likely doom himself to a life even more marginal than the one he’s already been living.
Last Exit to Brooklyn was of course very controversial upon its publication in 1964, and its brutally frank treatment of both transvestitism specifically and homosexuality in general was no doubt its most controversial feature. But these characters are really just emblematic of the kind of character–largely neglected in American fiction at the time–Selby wishes to portray: the marginalized, the down-and-out, the desperate and the damned. In this effort I found his achievement in Last Exit very impressive indeed, and I would highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to see what real “street lit” is finally all about.
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