Last exit to welfare

Other writers compare Hubert Selby to Dante and Whitman. So why can't he get published? By Jonathan Rendall
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To William Burroughs, and to younger literary hotshots like Thom Jones and Richard Price, he is the one, the best, the Man. And not only is he the Man, he talks like him - a Brooklyn accent so sharp it slices through you, a bit like Joe Pesci's; no, like the man who tells Joe Pesci what to do. We are in his small apartment in the flat, crummier part of Hollywood, just an old fly-shield between us and the humid well containing the doors to the other apartments. A young Latino woman walks past. He's been here 20 years, the Man. He's separated from his third wife Suzanne, and lives alone now. He is 70.

"Ha! It's a joke really," he is saying. "Just a bunch of Mafia guys. One guy has this young brother-in-law married to his kid sister and he did his first job last night, whackin' some guy. And he put the body in a Toyota, and the other guy's gone apeshit: "Doncha know our heritage? Isn't anything sacred to ya? It's gotta be a Buick or a Cadillac!"'

What will you do with it? I ask.

"I dunno. Put it in the closet with the rest of 'em."

What's it called?

" `The Big Black Toyota'. But nobody wants my stuff. I wrote to Harper's magazine and they never even answered the letter."

The New Yorker?

"Hah! I once sent them all the stories I had and they laughed at them. Mocked 'em."

I tell the Man that I find this incredible. Hubert Selby Jr - author of Last Exit To Brooklyn, The Room, The Demon and The Willow Tree, perhaps one of the great writers in the English language of the 20th century, certainly the most original since 1964, when Last Exit came out and he became the Man - "mocked"?

He adjusts his glasses. His appearance is not what you'd expect from a person with a killer's voice like that. Then again, that's often the case. He is frail-looking. It's understandable. He's looked truth in the face so many times, it's a wonder he's still alive, let alone still seeking it out in "The Big Black Toyota". Plus, before he even started writing, he was meant to be dead. He was 26, a poor kid from Brooklyn; he went into the merchant navy and contracted TB. They gave him an experimental drug, Streptomycin. This stuff was so toxic, it could turn grass blue. He lost 10 ribs and a lung.

Previously Selby had been adopting a self-deprecatory tone, but he allows himself to say, "I can't get a grant. According to the Guggenheim Foundation there are 3,000 writers in the country who are much better than I am, which may or may not be true. But if it's true, I'd like to read their work!" Now, he lives off welfare.

It's worth remembering what the critics said when Last Exit came out. The Nation: "Like Dante, Selby deploys street slang to create high poetic art. It seems to derive from the greatest American poetry - Whitman, Pound ..." The New York Times: "To understand his work is to understand the anguish of America."

His latest book, The Willow Tree, is about a young black kid, Bobby, and an old white man, Mushie, and how Mushie is trying to persuade Bobby from seeking ultra-vengeance on the Latino gang who killed his girl. But it is not so much the scenarios that are the key to Selby's writing as the utter lack of distance between author and character. There is no authorial voice, only the unadulterated, often terrifying consciousness of those he has created. His books fill you up with a mixture of bile and beatification. It's like reading the Bible without all the religious redemptive stuff. Apart from in The Willow Tree, all his central characters end up dead, either mentally or physically.

Here's a brief extract from a chapter called "Tralala" in Last Exit. Tralala is a 15-year-old hooker who works out of a scumbag Brooklyn bar called The Greeks. She's older than she looks and can pull anyone with her big, womanly breasts. The Second World War has just ended, and the dockside is a flow of potential Johns in uniforms. But Tralala wants a big score. She decides to go into mugging. That's when this forlorn, handsome young soldier walks in: "He asked her if she wanted something. Why not. He smiled. He pulled a bill from a thick roll and dropped it onto the counter. She pushed her chest out. He told her about his ribbons. And medals. Bronze star. And a Purple Heart with two Oakleaf Clusters. He talked and slobbered and she smiled. She hoped he didn't have all ones. They got in a cab and drove to a downtown hotel. He bought a bottle of whiskey and they sat and drank and he talked. She kept filling his glass. He kept talking. About the war. She kept pouring but he wouldn't pass out. The bastard. He said he just wanted to be near her for a while. She waited. To hell with it. She hit him over the head with the bottle. She emptied his pockets and left."

Why did you start writing, anyway? I ask.

"I was 25, 26, and they kept saying I was going to die. Then I had this experience. I knew that just before I would regret my entire life, and I would want to live my life over again. And it just terrified me. So I bought a typewriter. I went back to work, a clerk, and when I got home at night I wrote and at the end of six years I had a book, Last Exit. I don't think I'd even written a letter before. But I was obsessed. So I just sat down and I learnt."

You must have realised fairly quickly that you had a natural talent.

"I was certainly not aware of it. There was no indication. I just kept writing until `Tralala', which is maybe 20 pages long. It took me two and a half years. See, it took me two and a half years to write `Tralala' because I didn't understand the story and I kept looking for one, looking for it. And finally, with `Tralala' I realised that what I had to do with the story was learn how to reflect the psychodynamics of an individual through the rhythm and tension of a prose line. And once I realised that, the story just came right on out."

In the United States, Last Exit was a cult success. In Britain it was banned on obscenity grounds, after objections in parliament, led by the young Robert Maxwell MP. The decision was overturned on appeal. The controversy helped sales and made Selby, who had only just turned 30, a considerable amount of money.

What did the money do for you? I ask.

"What it did was it gave me the ability to drink without stopping. I gave up my job and I could afford to just keep drinking. Finally I almost drank myself to death and I couldn't drink any more, so I sobered up and then I wrote The Room."

I hadn't read The Room (1971) at the time of our conversation - though I have now - so I ask Selby to give me a quick rundown. He takes his glasses off again and shakes his head ruefully.

"I should warn you that it's probably the most disturbing book ever written by a human being."


"Uh-huh, really. Really disturbing. I couldn't read it for 12 years."

And you were still happy with it?

"Man," the Man says. "You want the truth?"

Of course, I fumble. The truth, yes.

"The truth is I was amazed. Number one, I think it's a masterpiece. And it really showed me that I learnt how to write; all those years of Last Exit and I really learnt."

It got good reviews?

"Absolutely remarkable reviews, but there was no advertising. Somehow it got lost."

So what did you do after The Room came out?

"I had to go to work. I was working in a garage, pumping gas and changing oil."

Is the truth the same story? I inquire of him. I mean, whatever the year, or the decade? Does it change? Does technology come into it?

"Well, I think the pathology is the same, but just being expressed with greater or lesser degrees. There are differences. For instance, when I first started writing in New York, it was a pretty great time. Through the 1950s, New York was marvellous. Shit, a great time to be alive."

And now?

"The fascism in this country today is incredible. But things go through cycles. Look at McCarthyism. That started in the 1950s and went through for quite a while. So the basic pathology is always there. In this country, our escape, regardless of what technology's around, has always been money. The so-called `bottom line' is God, over absolutely everything. So regardless of what else is going on, there is that fix."

After The Room you wrote The Demon (1976), a brilliant book about sexual addiction. How did that sell?

"It didn't."

And, more recently, there is The Willow Tree. For the first time in your books there seems to be hope. Hope that Mushie the old guy will be able to persuade Bobby the young kid not to go out and exterminate the whole of the Latino gang.

"Yeah see, this time I also wanted to have the answers, and how you get from your problem to the answers. The other books, there's no relief. Just - boom!"

No distance. How do you do it?

"Well, that's a difficult thing to explain sometimes. To stop resisting. Instead of fighting the demon, to just look the demon in the eye and say `OK'. It's my resistance to the demon that was causing the problem. The demon is a myth - to keep me separated from myself, from whatever created me, from you: that's how I define for myself, anyway, the human ego. The lie of separation. I just want to write the best story I can write, and be true to the people that I create, and allow them to live their own lives."

Selby scrunches up his face as if he is in pain. Suddenly, he looks tired. "Let's leave it," he says. "Oh man ..."

I'm sorry, I tell the Man. I didn't mean to upset you. It's just that America seems to hold a terror that England doesn't. In England there's still a net. But in America you can be an upstanding citizen for years and then suddenly through a combination of unfortunate circumstances you fall and you are ...

"Dead," he says, his voice strong again. "And this is the richest country in the world, in every way possible, and we have millions of children starving. Can you f---ing believe that! This idea of efficiency and the bottom line is madness."

Why are your books ignored by the literary establishment? I ask finally.

"I'm not sure. I think what it is, is that they're not genteel enough, or poetic enough, from their idea."

But your work is intensely poetic.

"Well, other writers have said that. And I think if you have to choose, it's better to have the respect of your peers than some academic who never wrote a line in their life."

He calls me a cab. We stand outside by the security gate in the breeze. I say at least he is still writing and he says, yeah, and that as well as `The Big Black Toyota', he's done another story recently called `The Whites Of Their Eyes', about the Battle of Concord, the start of the American revolution. "The British troops are marching up, red uniforms with the straps, like X marks the spot. And it's the first time these colonists have ever shot another human being; they've just shot game to eat before. And how hard it was to fire the first shot, but then they get into the rhythm of it, one line fires and then retires, reloads, keeps shooting, wondering, the next time, will it be that difficult again? Or will it be easy? And they just keep killing them until all the British are dead."

We say goodbye, I wave at him from the street and the Man, disappearing into the apartment building, waves back with his self-deprecating look, saying, "Hey, I just like to write jokes! Yeah, I write jokes!"

`The Willow Tree' is published in paperback next week (Bloomsbury, pounds 9.99).