This is not going to be the kind of well-thought-out review that gets written days or weeks after reading, once a book has settled into the mind. It’s going to be the babbling ravings of a newly converted fan who has just finished her favourite Brooklyn book to date and needs to tell the whole world about it.
‘Last Exit’ is a frenetic depiction of lives on the outside of society. It contains six short stories (or disparate chapters) dealing with hoodlums, ‘hip queers’, and the inhabitants of a low income project. The forces of law and order (cops, union and factory officials, project management) all appear on the pages, but have little lasting impact on the destroyed lives of the protagonists. The stories are violent, brutal and objectively narrated, with no comforting moral standpoint from which to judge the hideous actions which are clearly commonplace within this world.
So why do I love it so much? It’s not because I have a passion for imaginatively inhabiting the most soul-destroying urban squalor … it’s because, quite simply, Selby is the best prose writer I have read in a very long time. I’m concerned that a description of the writing it will make sound overly similar to Irving Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’, with dialect, phonetic spellings and geographically specific slang; personally, I think Selby far suprasses Welsh in his sensitive linguistic creation of an urban underworld. What is so impressive is that, to a London-born woman reading it fifty years after publication, the syntax still sings. In the fantastic introduction to this edition, Selby wrote ‘I have always been enamored with the music of speech, and the streets of NYC are certainly rich with this music. But if I were to simply put the speech down as spoken it would be incomprehensible. Profanity was the foundation of much of the speech I was dealing with and would be a bore if simply transcribed. Also, every area, at times every street corner, has its own venacular, all of which would be unintelligible to the reader. Yet I had to be true to the people in the story. So I had to find a way to edit the speech so the same flavor was there as well as reflecting the psychodynamics of the people, and to make the various idioms self-explanatory.’ Put simply, Selby worked hard so we wouldn’t have to. It takes very little time to attune to the speech patterns and they make for a wonderfully visceral and effective read.
If it wasn’t for the understated virtuosity of the writing, this book would be very hard to get through. The introductory story ‘Another Day Another Dollar’ tells of a typical night out in ‘the ‘Greeks, a beatup all night diner near the Brooklyn Armybase’. The men are bored and deal with this by first beating each other and then brutally attacking a group of black soldiers. The story is not racist, but the men certainly are, or, at least, they fall into that hideous category of ‘equally offensive to all’. Certainly, their unprovoked attacks of violence are motivated by nothing so clear-cut as prejudice. The cruelty and hatred in the story is directed at strangers, at companions, at girlfriends and ultimately, inwards. Self-hatred is not an excuse however, and the book always balances inner angst with outer cruelty.
Maybe if I’d given more time for the book to settle I would be able to articulate how such unappealing subject matter can be so enthralling to read. I’d be tempted to say that there is a level of sensitivity and love that shines through in the depiction of every character, but it’s really hard to back this up with quotations. Power-hungry union man Harry, for example, is entirly without charm and utterly unlovable; his story however, one of the longest in the book, is compulsive reading.
Overall, it comes down to the writing, I could read about ‘Georgette’, whose ‘life didn’t revolve, but spun centrifugally, around stimulants, opiates, johns…’ forever. When her story is over, I’m instantly drawn into Tralala’s empty and hate-filled existance, her mind ‘a fury of screechings’ when a young solider gives her a heart-felt love letter, not wishing to insult her with money after they spend four days together.
Do not let the character or plot descriptions put you off. ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ is a must read, and Selby deserves a place with the great English language novelists of the last century.