Revisiting ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’



Photo: Meredith Craig de Pietro

This story is part of our “Brooklyn Classics” series, about well-known and underappreciated books set in the borough.

Some books aim to startle, but Hubert Selby, Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” takes a sucker punch. It’s an unflinching look at gritty 1950s New York, where union leaders, addicts, transgender sex workers, and alcoholics fight for survival. The linked short stories hop from character to character, primarily around the grim edges of Sunset Park’s Brooklyn Army Terminal, and each person’s story is more shocking than the one before. In one chapter, a baby climbs along a building ledge, while a crowd of women gathers below, laughing as if it’s entertainment. In this way, the reader is also implicated in continuing to watch the characters’ lives devolve into gruesome violence, vicious sexual assaults, and never-ending rock bottoms. But Selby doesn’t exploit his characters, or give moral judgments, as much as he gives a voice to those on the fringes of society. As Selby writes in the story “The Queen is Dead,” which became part of the book, [He] “creates such beauty out of the tortured darkness of our souls.” 

Here’s the backstory on Selby’s best-known work:

Selby became a writer when he was bedridden for three years.

According to the documentary “It/ll Be Better Tomorrow,” Hubert Selby, Jr. was born in 1928 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and was nicknamed “Cubby” because he was the Jr. (cub) to his dad’s Sr.  At 15, he dropped out of high school and joined the Merchant Marine, where he contracted tuberculous at sea. His entire tuberculosis ward died except for him, but in his survival, he had one lung and several ribs removed — and became hooked on morphine. He spent over three years in bed and during that time, he decided he had to do something and he started to write. He sent “Last Exit to Brooklyn” to the same agent that represented Jack Kerouac, and it was published in 1964, by Grove Press, best known for publishing William D. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.”

Selby’s prose has been compared to the improvisational style of jazz.

Selby’s manner of writing is very experimental. He does away with quotation marks, which allows the characters to speak as directly with the reader as the author. He often omits spaces between words, too. The paragraph indentations are random and vary from page to page. There’s a section in the book that is completely capitalized because the married characters are screaming at each other in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner. But the most evocative of his grammatical changes is his use of slashes instead of apostrophes in words like “I/ll” or “It/ll.” Although these experimental touches could be pretentious or difficult to read in other hands, Selby’s grammar feels like an expression of his character’s words. He broke conventional rules but created his own to better capture the rhythms and diction of what he heard on the streets. 

Ten years after the success of ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn,’ Selby was pumping gas at a gas station.

“Being an artist doesn’t take much. Just everything you’ve got,” Selby famously said. He’d battled heroin addiction and severe alcoholism for most of his life. Even after the immediate international success of “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” he was unable to kick his heroin habit. A decade after publication, he was pumping gas at a gas station. Selby got sober at 40 years old, and from that point on, he remained sober for the rest of his life. He died in 2004 of complications from TB at the age of 75.

‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ has been banned in many countries.

When the book was published, it was an international hit. Selby’s topics and writing style felt wholly new at the time and readers clamored for copies. But his shocking language and subject matter were compared to pornography when it was first released and the book was banned in many countries. Selby’s work was the subject of two obscenity trials, one in England, where authors including Anthony Burgess (“A Clockwork Orange”) spoke on his behalf. The any-press-is-good-press adage held true: the trial helped popularize the book. 

Hubert Selby, Jr. influenced all your favorite musicians.

David Bowie claimed “Last Exit to Brooklyn” influenced his life. The Smiths named their first album, “The Queen is Dead” after the story in “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” The book also influenced Sting’s first band, named “Last Exit.” Selby’s work inspired many of Lou Reed’s songs. Henry Rollins was instrumental in rediscovering and popularizing Selby’s work in the 80s when he organized readings for the author. 

The film replaced Sunset Park with Red Hook.

In 1989, “Last Exit to Brooklyn” was made into a movie by the German director Uli Edel. Instead of using the short stories, the director combined them all to create one narrative, for a critically acclaimed film starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alexis Arquette. The biggest change in the movie was the swap of the neighborhood setting. Though most of the book is set around the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the film was entirely shot on location in Red Hook. The movie became an instant cult classic, but as of publication, it’s not available for streaming. You’ll have an easier time seeing the Selby-inspired film “Requiem for a Dream” or the Simpsons episode, “Last Exit to Springfield.”

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