Long Ago in Brooklyn, Switchblades Out

Let’s begin with this: Don’t read the book I am about to write about. It will only upset you.

It will enrage you, sicken you, shock you, nauseate you, horrify you, depress you, repulse you, darken your mood, warp your brain, make you question humankind, make you question the kind of writer who could dream up this kind of hellscape, make you question the kind of publisher that would put it out there, make you curse the written word, send you scrambling for some kind of mental/emotional comfort food, like kiddie cartoons or pretty landscapes or professional ping-pong matches.

Just don’t read it. Read something else. Go pick up a nice Jane Austen instead.                             

It’s the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. The second-most disturbing book I’ve ever read, whatever it is, does not come within seven billion light years of how disturbing this book is. There were times when I wanted to rip it to shreds and torch it with napalm. Reading it was an exercise in just how long I could keep turning pages before I finally decided to toss it in the trash and zap my brain with a cattle prod until I’d purged it of any memory of the book’s very existence.

It’s a disgusting, brutal, deranged and offensive book.

It’s also a brilliant one in ways I can’t even begin to describe.

The book is “Last Exit to Brooklyn” by Hubert Selby Jr. It’s billed as a novel but is really more of a series of slightly-interconnected short stories, six in all, each prefaced with a passage from the Bible. It’s been around awhile – first published in 1966.

Maybe you’ve heard of it. Lots of people have. It’s pretty famous (and infamous) in certain literary circles. It was the subject of an obscenity trial in the United Kingdom and was banned in Italy. It was praised by a couple of brave early reviewers but panned by many more, who slammed it as sick, quasi-pornographic, sloppily written garbage. The beat poet Allen Ginsburg was one of its biggest fans. A movie version of the book came out in 1990 that starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alexis Arquette, Jerry Orbach, Stephen Baldwin, Burt Young (remember them?) and other lesser lights.

I think I was familiar with the title – “Last Exit to Brooklyn” rings a bell – if not the book itself. I bought it at a bookstore here in London a couple months ago on one of those bookstore excursions when I’m not exactly sure what I want but know it’ll probably be some kind of gritty urban drama. I noticed “Last Exit to Brooklyn” on the shelves, picked it up, liked the cover, read the description on the back, and decided it would do just fine. I am and always will be a sucker for novels set in New York when it was still a grimy, dirty, cheap and dangerous place.

I took the book to the cashier, along with a couple of others. The cashier’s face lit up when he saw “Last Exit to Brooklyn” in the pile. “Man, I love this book,” he told me. “Brilliant.” I nodded, said I was looking forward to reading it, and went on my way.

The book sat in rotation for a couple of months while I worked my way through a stack of other books I needed to read first. I finally cracked it open a couple of weeks ago. I made my way through the introduction by another writer even though I hate introductions by other writers, then finally got to the first chapter.

The first thing I learned is that Hubert Selby Jr. was not much on structure or punctuation. It’s one of those books where passages can ramble on for pages without coming up for air. You won’t find an apostrophe anywhere in “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” Much of the writing shifts between first and third person on a dime, with words slammed together, making new words. Some passages are in all caps. Its 240-odd pages don’t contain a single quotation mark.

A few pages in you begin to get a sense of what’s to come. A bleak neighborhood in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, late 1950s or so, filled with wretched people doing horrible things. Pedophiles, junkies, rapists, wife beaters, child abusers, bullies, adulterers, Peeping Toms, liars, crooks, cheaters, misogynists, violent psychos, thieves, drunks, hustlers, the soulless and living dead.

You’ll read about transvestites and prostitutes who trade sex for money, drugs, drinks, kicks, laughs, dinner – whatever – and who will stab you in the back the second you stop being useful. You’ll read about housing project housewives who sit around making fun of the elderly and disabled, and who laugh at a baby that crawled out on an apartment ledge several stories high, wondering if it knows how to fly, hoping it will fall to the sidewalk below. There’s a union rep who steals from the union fund to buy beer for people who secretly despise him, only he’s too stupid and self-deluded to know it. You’ll read about sadists who beat others to a bloody pulp for the sheer joy of it, and thugs who gang rape out of boredom.

It goes on like this for page after page, one story after the other, beginning to end. You get hit with a constant barrage of endless passages describing gruesome and inhuman things, laced with profanity, violence and a steady undercurrent of hate and anger. The dialogue is mostly people insulting, conning or threatening each other – friends against friends, husbands against wives, parents against children, children against children, neighbors against neighbors, cops against citizens. The sex scenes – and there are more than a few – read more like gladiator battles than lovemaking sessions.

I’m not sure I can think of a single redeeming or sympathetic character in “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” Maybe a couple housewives who try to put up a brave front even though they’re married to some of the worst, most violent, sociopathic and self-centered assholes in the history of fiction. The owner of a Greek diner seems OK, or at least he tries to convince some of his recidivist customers to clean up their acts. If there’s any kind of moral center in this book, it’s doing a pretty good job of disguising itself.

A couple of reviews I read tried hard to find the humanity in some of the more troubled characters, but I wasn’t buying it. There’s not much humanity in any of them as far as I can see. Whatever ambitions they have to improve themselves all seem rooted in bringing others down so they can scrape a little bit higher up the food chain.

All in all, a pretty miserable world full of very miserable people.

And yet: At some level, “Last Exit to Brooklyn” really is a mesmerizing book. There’s a certain magical power in its sheer brutality. The scenes and narratives can suck you in no matter how hard you try to repel them. The writing can hypnotize you. You hate these people – at least I did – and yet you want to find out what happens to them. Mainly, you want to see justice and karma come crashing down on their heads. Mostly, you’re disappointed. With few exceptions, the characters just waltz on and on without having to pay for their many and varied sins.

I’ve always considered myself a big fan of dark, moody fiction where violence might erupt at any moment and the most interesting characters have their souls whittled away little by little, bit by bit, until they all but disappear. But I’ve never read anything as dark as this before and don’t expect to ever again – at least by writers who have half a clue of what they’re doing.

It just goes to show how art works. You might not always like it. But you can’t deny its power.

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