Hubert Selby Jnr

Author of 'Last Exit to Brooklyn'
Click to follow
Hubert Selby Jnr, author of the excoriatingly powerful, unrelentingly bleak Last Exit to Brooklyn, one of the great books of 20th-century American fiction, almost didn't live to write it. He contracted tuberculosis whilst in the merchant marine and at the age of 18 was given up for dead.

Hubert Selby Jnr, writer: born New York 23 July 1928; three times married (two sons, two daughters); died Los Angeles 26 April 2004.

Hubert Selby Jnr, author of the excoriatingly powerful, unrelentingly bleak Last Exit to Brooklyn, one of the great books of 20th-century American fiction, almost didn't live to write it. He contracted tuberculosis whilst in the merchant marine and at the age of 18 was given up for dead. Radical surgery and three years in hospital left him alive but with an addiction to morphine and a rage that eventually he poured into his black, bitter fiction.

Selby was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928, the son of a Kentucky coal-miner turned merchant seaman and his wife, Adalin. The family was reasonably well off but Selby's father was an alcoholic and there were many tense domestic scenes. When the Second World War broke out, Selby Snr went back into the merchant marine. Selby Jnr, who had grown up hearing stories of his father's time at sea in the First World War, dropped out of school aged 15 and also joined the merchant marine.

He contracted tuberculosis in his third year at sea. In 1947 he was taken off his ship in Germany and told he only had a few months to live. He was shipped back to New York where treatment with an experimental drug made surgery possible. Surgeons removed 10 of his ribs so they could get at his lungs and cut a section from one of them. (The other one had collapsed.)

He was in hospital for three years. The experimental drug - streptomycin - was, he recalled, "really toxic". "It impaired my vision, destroyed most of my inner ear and fried my brain." He also came out of hospital addicted to morphine.

He married in 1949 and stayed at home to look after his daughter whilst his wife worked part-time in a department store. He decided to try writing because "I did not want to die having done nothing with my life."

In the early 1950s, he got involved with a group of young writers, including Gilbert Sorrentino. At the same time he had begun drinking and hung out in the bars near the army base in Brooklyn. By now he was calling himself Cubby. "When you have a name like Hubert and you are growing up in the streets of Brooklyn and everybody's called Mikey, Vinnie and Tony, I had to come up with something."

Sorrentino and the writer LeRoi Jones encouraged Selby's writing. Some of his work was published in small literary journals. He made a living with a succession of dead-end jobs - secretary, insurance clerk, gas station attendant - whilst working on a loosely linked collection of stories called The Queen is Dead based on the stories he had heard and people he had met in the bars.

Six years later it had evolved into his first novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn. LeRoi Jones suggested he should contact Sterling Lord, Jack Kerouac's agent. He did so, and Lord rang back to say he thought they could make some money together.

Grove Press, who also published William Burroughs, published Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1964, and it immediately attracted both praise and condemnation. Allen Ginsberg declared it would "explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years".

The novel describes an urban hell - a wasteland where there are gang rapes, thuggish beatings and all manner of sexual perversion. One of the stories, "Tralala", had already been the subject of an obscenity suit when it had been published in the Provincetown Review in 1961.

When Last Exit to Brooklyn was published by Calder and Boyars in Britain in 1966 a jury found it obscene and the publishers were fined, although on appeal the courts found in their favour. It had already sold 33,000 hardbacks and half a million paperbacks in America.

Selby always claimed not to understand what all the fuss was about. "The events that take place are the way people are," he said in an interview in 1988. "These are not literary characters; these are real people. I knew these people."

Selby spent most of the money he earned on heroin and alcohol. He spent a couple of months in prison. Then, in 1969, he overcame his addictions by going cold turkey, married again and moved to California where he remained for the rest of his life.

The hopelessness of Last Exit to Brooklyn was repeated in almost all his subsequent novels. His second novel, The Room (1971), received, according to Selby, "the greatest reviews I've ever read in my life", but wasn't particularly well received. He claimed to regard it as the most disturbing book ever written and said he was unable to read it again himself for 20 years.

His third, The Demon, in 1976, about sexual compulsion, was equally bleak. Some critics regard his 1978 novel, Requiem for a Dream, as his masterpiece. It provides a harsh, horrific account of heroin addiction. He wrote it in only six weeks after a bout of pneumonia during which, his wife insisted, she was visited by two spirits urging her to rush him to hospital because he was about to die. "I had never written at such a pace. It's almost as if I was racing against death. That's not how it felt - rather it was just the opposite . . . I was feeling very much alive."

Around now the rage that fuelled his writing was being exhibited sometimes towards those he loved. He became depressed. He later wrote:

These days were idyllic . . . There were times of simple and exquisite joy, but there were also times of madness. Periodically I was a raving lunatic. There were a thousand demons in my mind and body and I could not exorcise them.

The only time he could be sure to keep the demons under control, he said, was when he was writing.

He experimented with yoga and was a member of a self-realisation group for a time. With his frail health, however, as he got older writing could be a slow process. In 1986 he published a collection of 15 short stories, Song of the Silent Snow, some dating back 20 years.

In 1989 the film of Last Exit to Brooklyn was released with Jennifer Jason Leigh as the prostitute Tralala, a performance for which she won a Critics' Circle award.

Only in 1998 did he publish another novel - The Willow Tree - and one that, remarkably, was filled with some hope via the notion of redemption through forgiveness. In 2000 he co-scripted the film of Requiem for a Dream and in 2002 wrote another novel, Waiting Period.

In recent years he had lived on welfare for a while, then his disability pension. He had also been teaching creative writing part-time at the University of Southern California for some years.

Much of Selby's writing was pessimistic, dealing with alienated characters. In this he seemed to strike a chord with readers. Although in recent years he was more celebrated in Europe than America, The New York Times once wrote that "to understand Selby's work is to understand the anguish of America."

Asked in a recent interview whether he felt he had achieved what he wanted to achieve, he replied: "My only disappointment is that I can't do more. I certainly haven't become a celebrity or a personality, but my life is my life. That's what I have and that's what I deal with."

Peter Guttridge