Selby, Hubert, Jr.

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Selby, Hubert, Jr.

(b. 23 July 1928 in New York City; d. 26 April 2004 in Los Angeles, California), writer best known for Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), a novel that shocked readers with its unflinching portrayal of human depravity.

An only child, Selby was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York City, in the Bay Ridge section, a hard-working community of Norwegian, Irish, and Italian Americans. His father, Hubert Selby, Sr., a coal miner from Kentucky, served in the U.S. Merchant Marine before taking up residence in New York City with his wife, Adalin (Layne) Selby, a homemaker who taught Sunday school and sang in the church choir. Whether working as a merchant seaman, a superintendent in an apartment building, or an engineer in a power plant, Selby’s father managed to provide for his family.

Selby attended P.S. 102, the local public school. At age fourteen he enrolled in Stuyvesant High School but dropped out after a year to join the merchant marine, greatly disappointing his parents. While at sea Selby contracted tuberculosis. In the fall of 1946 he returned home from Germany aboard a hospital ship. Close to death on several occasions, Selby was hospitalized for much of the next four years. Released in November 1950, missing ten ribs and part of a lung, he was cured of tuberculosis, but asthma and other respiratory ailments plagued him for the rest of his life. Moreover, the pain-killing drugs prescribed during his confinement would lead to later drug and alcohol abuse, engendering feelings of alienation and despair.

After completing a secretarial course in 1951, Selby worked at various clerical jobs before settling into a position as an insurance analyst. On 26 September 1953 he married Inez Taylor. The couple had a daughter and a son before divorcing in 1960. During this period Selby became close to Gilbert Sorrentino, an aspiring writer and boyhood acquaintance. After Selby expressed an interest in writing, Sorrentino became his literary mentor. He brought Selby to the Cedar Tavern in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City and to parties at the home of the writer LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) on West Twentieth Street in the Chelsea neighborhood. At the parties Selby met other writers, including Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Ray Bremser, and Joel Oppenheimer. In 1958 Selby began working on the stories that would become Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), excerpts of which were published in Black Mountain Review (1957), Provincetown Review (1960), and New Directions (1961).

Ginsberg wrote a blurb for Grove Press predicting that Last Exit to Brooklyn would “explode like a rusty, hellish bombshell over America.” When it appeared, Last Exit to Brooklyn was heavily reviewed. Some critics praised it lavishly for its originality and style; others damned it as brutal and obscene. Newsweek hailed it as a “serious work of literature” and “a Pyrrhic victory of the moral imagination,” whereas Time condemned it as “Grove Press’s extra special dirty book for fall.” The novel’s reception in Europe generated further controversy after it was banned in England and Italy. The ban in England was lifted on appeal in 1968. The attention, good and bad, had a positive effect on sales, which surpassed 750,000 copies.

The success of Last Exit to Brooklyn brought Selby financial stability as well as a degree of celebrity. On 24 October 1964 he married Judith Lumino, but the marriage soon fell apart. Living on East Tenth Street in Manhattan, Selby spent time socializing with literary friends in nearby bars and jazz clubs. Unfortunately, he also succumbed to the allure of drugs that were readily available in the East Village.

In 1967 Selby was arrested for heroin possession. A short jail sentence enabled him to kick his drug habit, but he continued to battle alcohol abuse for the next two years. Also in 1967 Selby met Suzanne Shaw, seventeen years his junior, in a Los Angeles bar. They married on 26 December 1969, had two children together, and eventually settled in Los Angeles, although Selby always considered himself a New Yorker at heart.

In 1971 Selby’s The Room was published. This book was an existentialist novel about an innocent prisoner who fantasizes revenge against the policemen who arrested him. The novel, most likely sparked by Selby’s incarceration, received generally positive reviews but did not sell as well as Last Exit to Brooklyn, a fate shared by Selby’s next two efforts, The Demon (1976) and Requiem for a Dream (1978).

Selby’s work continued to be published, often with long intervals between books. Song of the Silent Snow, a collection of short stories, appeared in 1986 and was followed by The Willow Tree (1998) and Waiting Period (2002). During this time Selby supplemented his writing income by pumping gas, working as a unit manager for a Los Angeles television group, and teaching creative writing as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.

In the 1990s Selby’s reputation revived after the release of the German director Uli Edel’s film Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989). Selby served as a consultant throughout the shooting of the film. He later worked with the director Darren Aronofsky on the film Requiem for a Dream (2000), turning his 1978 novel into a screenplay. Selby made cameo appearances in Last Exit to Brooklyn as the driver who runs down Georgette and in Requiem for a Dream as a prison guard. The experience with the film adaptations of his novels led Selby to write an original screenplay for Fear X, a thriller starring John Turturro that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003.

On 26 April 2004 at the age of seventy-five, at work on a novel and a screenplay, Selby died peacefully in Los Angeles with family at his bedside. The cause of death was chronic obstructive pulmonary lung disease. His body was cremated and his ashes dispersed at sea.

Selby’s literary reputation rests primarily on Last Exit to Brooklyn, a book that marked him as a writer with a fine ear for dialogue and an empathy for outcasts: prostitutes, drug addicts, transvestites, and petty criminals who live on society’s margins. Along with Terry Southern’s Candy (1958) and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), Selby’s novel struck a blow for free speech and contributed to the sexually liberated, no-holds-barred atmosphere of the 1960s. Later works, particularly The Room, received high critical praise but did not achieve the popularity of Selby’s first novel. At the time of his death all of Selby’s books remained in print, and the films Last Exit to Brooklyn, Requiem for a Dream, and Fear X were gaining him a younger and wider audience.

There is no full-length biography of Selby. Interviews include H. Frankel, “Call Me Cubby,” Saturday Review (23 Jan. 1965); John O’Brien, “An Interview with Hubert Selby, Jr.,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 1 (Summer 1981): 315–335; Bill Langenheim, “Interview with Hubert Selby, Jr.,” Enclitic 10 (1988): 14–28; S. E. Gontarski, “Last Exit to Brooklyn: An Interview with Hubert Selby,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 10 (Fall 1990): 111–115; Allan Vorda, “Examining the Disease: An Interview with Hubert Selby, Jr.,” Literary Review 35 (Winter 1992): 288–302; and James Sullivan, “Q Going Deep into the Dark Side,” San Francisco Chronicle (7 July 2002). Review of Contemporary Fiction 1 (Summer 1981), a special issue devoted to Selby and to Paul Metcalf, contains an interesting reminiscence by Joel Oppenheimer. An obituary is in the New York Times (27 Apr. 2004). Michael W. Dean, It’ll Be Better Tomorrow (2005), is a seventy-eight-minute video documentary on Selby’s life and work.

William M. Gargan