A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I was 17 years old when I first read Last Exit to Brooklyn. My mother would have been horrified had she known, but I was away at college and could read what I liked without fear of parental disapproval, and in 1973 I chose to read Hubert Selby Jr’s notorious portrait of the human detritus of Brooklyn in the 1950s.
My slightly pompous, pampered and middle class young self was so traumatized by the experience that I scuttled off to the comforting arms of Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens and stayed there for two decades.
It was therefore with some curiosity and not a little unease that I recently returned to the book that had haunted the darker recesses of my mind for nearly 35 years.
Last Exit to Brooklyn’s route to publication in the UK had not been an easy one. It had already been favourably received in the United States when Marion Boyars, enthusiastically supported by John Calder, successfully negotiated the British rights and published it in January 1966 – having first taken the precaution of submitting it to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in advance. As it had in the US, the book received a largely favourable press and ran to two impressions totalling just under 14,000 copies, but then ran into a firestorm ignited by Richard Blackwell, Director of the Oxford-based booksellers and son of the uber-conservative Sir Basil Blackwell. The DPP advised against prosecution, so Sir Cyril Black MP brought a private prosecution which was heard at Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court by Leo Gladwell who – after hearing the witnesses from both sides – declared the book obscene.
Calder and Boyars announced that they intended to continue publishing the book come what may, at which point the DPP did an about turn and told them of his intention to prosecute under Section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act – entitling them to a hearing in front of a judge and jury (instead of a single magistrate). Witnesses for the prosecution included the critic David Holloway, Sir Basil Blackwell and the highly regarded cleric and social worker the Reverend David Sheppard and, in spite of defence witnesses of the calibre of Professor Frank Kermode, the poet Al Alvarez and the playwright John Arden, their opinions held sway and Calder and Boyars were found guilty.
Bloody-minded and unbowed (and backed by financial assistance raised from sympathetic members of the public, other publishers and prominent names in the arts world) they took the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal. John Mortimer QC led for the defence – and this time, they won.
It all basically hinged on the definition of the word ‘obscene’ and specifically the words ‘to deprave and corrupt’. John Mortimer’s definition was ‘to make a person behave worse than he or she otherwise would behave, or to blur a person’s sense of discrimination between right and wrong. The italics are mine. Remember those words.
So what was all the fuss about? Why did the great and the good take such exception to Last Exit?
From this distance and in a world that has moved on so far, it’s hard to tell. The language is uncompromising and direct. Sex, violence and degradation are described graphically but with no attempt to titillate. When we read about the tragic George/Georgette – the ‘hip’ transvestite hooker with pretensions to culture – or Harry, the closet homosexual who briefly achieves power and influence during a strike only to be destroyed by his own unleashed demons once the strike is over, we don’t revel in their downfall. Selby’s intention is not to judge them – or invite us to do so – he merely acts as a dispassionate narrator as we walk amongst those whose wretched lives we can only despair over.
Hubert Selby knew the world he was describing. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he was a merchant seaman whose health was wrecked by tuberculosis and botched surgery. He had started reading during his long years in hospital and turned to writing because all other avenues of earning a living were closed to him. Self-taught, with only the most basic of educations and virtually no grasp of grammatical structure, he wrote by instinct. His stories are devoid of quotation marks because he had no idea how to use them – instead he indicated change of speaker by change of tone and vocabulary. His spelling and general punctuation, too, are highly idiosyncratic – and yet they work. The raw and unpolished style of his writing so perfectly fits the subject matter that it’s hard to imagine such tales being told in any other way. And, because it’s a style he virtually invented for himself, it doesn’t come across as an affectation. Selby’s voice is vigorous and honest. He captures the cadences and rhythms of his subjects’ voices and lives unsentimentally but not unsympathetically – because he loved the people he was writing about. He loved them, he knew them and he cared about them, and for that reason, we care about them too. No matter how sordid their existence, how appalling their behaviour, they leap off the page as fully rounded human beings trapped in lives they can find no escape from.
The most notorious of the stories in Last Exit is that of the young prostitute, Tralala. Born into Brooklyn’s underclass, she makes a living rolling drunk sailors, and so obsessed is she with the getting and spending of money that when a young seaman falls in love with her, she totally fails to recognize her one hope of salvation when it’s staring her in the face:
Finally the time came for him to leave and he handed her an envelope and kissed her before boarding the train. She felt the envelope as he lifted her face slightly so he could kiss her. It felt thin and she figured it might be a check. She put it in her pocketbook, picked up her bag and went to the waiting room and sat on the bench and opened the envelope. She opened the paper and started reading: Dear Tral: There are many things I like to say and should have said, but – A letter. A goddamn LETTER. She ripped the envelope apart and turned the letter over a few times. Not a cent. I hope you understand what I mean and am unable to say – she looked at the words- if you do feel as I hope you do Im writing my address at the bottom. I don’t know if I’ll live through this war, but – Shit. Not vehemently but factually, She dropped the letter and rode the subway to Brooklyn.
Tralala’s story, like most of those in the book, ends badly. In her case, very badly indeed – in a gang rape after a drunken night in a bar. But nothing about her story or those of Harry or Georgette or any of the other characters in Last Exit will ‘blur a person’s sense of discrimination between right and wrong’ in John Mortimer’s words. The very opposite is true.
You may not like the language, you may not like the desperate lives so unflinchingly depicted but I defy any civilized human being to say this is a book that should never have been published. The obscenity lies not in the book itself but in the fact that the world it describes existed at all – and is still very much with us today.
This edition was published by Bloomsbury, by arrangement with Marion Boyars. 2000. ISBN: 0-7475-4992-3. 290pp.