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Hubert Selby Jr Biography - Hubert Selby comments: Jr.

york press harry london

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1928. Educated in New York City public schools, including Peter Stuyvesant High School. Military Service: Served in the United States Merchant Marine, 1944-46. Career: Hospital patient, with tuberculosis, 1946-50; held various jobs, including seaman and insurance clerk, 1950-64. Lives in Los Angeles. Member: Writer's Guild of America, and Authors Guild.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Last Exit to Brooklyn. New York, Grove Press, 1964; London, Calder and Boyars, 1966.

The Room. New York, Grove Press, 1971; London, Calder and Boyars, 1972.

The Demon. New York, Playboy Press, 1976; London, Boyars, 1977.

Requiem for a Dream. New York, Playboy Press, 1978; London, Boyars, 1979.

The Willow Tree. New York, Marion Boyars Publishers, 1998.

Short Stories

Song of the Silent Snow. New York, Grove Press, and London, Boyars, 1986.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Home for Christmas," in Neon 2 (New York), 1956.

"Love/s Labour/s Lost," in Black Mountain Review (Black Mountain, North Carolina), Autumn 1957.

"Double Feature," in Neon 4 (New York), 1959.

"Another Day, Another Dollar," in New Directions 17. New York, New Directions, 1961.

"A Penny for Your Thoughts," in The Moderns, edited by LeRoi Jones. New York, Corinth, 1963; London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1965.

"And Baby Makes Three," in New American Story, edited by Robert Creeley and Donald Allen. New York, Grove Press, 1965.

"Fat Phil's Day," in Evergreen Review (New York), August 1967.

"Happy Birthday," in Evergreen Review (New York), August 1969.

Plays

Screenplays:

Day and Night, 1985; Soldier of Fortune, 1990.

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Critical Studies:

"Hubert Selby Issue" of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), vol. 1, no. 2, 1981; Understanding Hubert Selby, Jr. by James R. Giles, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

(1991) I write by ear. Music of line important. Want to put reader through emotional experience.

* * *

If Last Exit to Brooklyn and its ludicrous obscenity trial hadn't exhausted moralistic disgust, Hubert Selby, Jr.'s work could probably stand at the bench in perpetuity. The Seventh Circle of the Violent in Dante's Inferno; Gulliver upon the cancerous Brobdignagian breast; Genet's onanist reveries. These suggest Selby's fictive world. He is our eyewitness on the dead-ends of the daily. Stuck in the sick gut of the city, his camera fixes the disaffected masses and completes a picture begun with Crane's Maggie. On the other hand, his biblical epigraphs are both ironically and straightforwardly applicable. He is, then, at once a determinist and a moralist whose narratives are naturalistic fables. Consequently, his psychological landscape is more than social realism or a Hogarth satire could accommodate. It is a Bosch and Francis Bacon triptych. As the witness for the damned, Selby is mired in America's slime. But given a populace which could nod off on the Vietnam War, his ability to shock may be remarkable, even morally so.

The title of his first novel is taken from an expressway sign that overlooks a cemetery of solid concrete. The work thematically connects six tales of hopeless human isolation. Its people delude themselves with faith in family and ideal dreams of profound sexual communion. But Abraham's infidelity, angry remoteness, and, finally, sleep are domesticity. Tralala's rape is heterosexuality. "Georgette's" and Vinnie's bestiality is homosexuality. Casual and sadistic, the violent are little Eichmanns and Mengeles. In the background Selby works with a timeless symbology of darkness overwhelming light. This is conveyed to us by depth associations with Ecclesiastes, Poe's Raven, and our own disillusioned black "Bird," Charlie Parker. It is only by viewing Selby in this context that we can grasp his preoccupation with drugs. He knows unequivocally the life-renouncing and futile lie at the heart of "kind nepenthe."

The Room shifts our focus from the sick social to the sick individual organism. Its sole province is the mind of a nameless paranoid schizophrenic, though Selby might resist terminology. The "room" is both a cell and the disconnected consciousness of the single character. Locked within each, he constructs antithetically lofty and brutal fantasies, but always out of a single-minded hatred of authority. Thus his imaginary revenges include delusions of magna-nimity in which he self-sacrificially fights social injustice with the help of liberal lawyers. Conversely, they include totally dehumanizing tortures of police officers, sadistic acts which reduce his adversaries to canines. These are rendered with nauseating detail. Selby seems unwilling to attribute this state of mind to a sick society, an indifferent family, or a bad character. It is simply a donnée, and Selby's forte is neither sociological nor psychological reductionism but graphic presentation. The novel's unsavory force and its interest are considerably enhanced by the author's tactic of gliding constantly between an omniscient and a first person perspective.

The "demon" of Selby's third novel is sexual obsession and its mutations. It begins as womanizing so unalleviated that Harry White can sustain no connection, except tenuously to his career, with any other activity. (He cannot last out a softball game with friends or a party for his grandparents.) It ends with his murdering, on Palm Sunday, a Christlike Cardinal and his subsequent suicide. So the demoniacal obsession is larger than carnality, passing through debauchery and theft toward this ultimately exciting destructiveness which seems proof for Selby that "The wages of sin is death." The novel's complementary epigraph is from James 1:15. At all times, whether White is fornicating or thieving, the demon exists as a physical tension so great that Harry hates whatever stands between himself and a feeling of exhausting gratification. But all respite from enslavement, including his marriage to Linda (the healthiest person Selby has drawn), is stop-gap. Only death does the job. As a study of the connection between sex and violence in the obsessive person, the book has merit. But the conclusion is unfortunately mystical in part, especially because the only psychological perspective is provided by an arrogant neo-Freudian simpleton. This straw man certainly doesn't exhaust more modestly agnostic interpretations of the events.

Requiem for a Dream is about hope ruined by narcotic habit. It sees America in terms of a pervasive dependence upon metaphorical and literal drugs. The widow Sara Goldfarb eats compulsively and lives a stuporously vicarious life through soap operas and TV game shows. Thinking she has a chance to appear in one and wanting to be appropriately svelte, she sees a physician who addicts her to Dexedrine. She ends up a skeletal and slavering schizoid in a mental hospital. Concurrently, her son Harry, his friend Tyrone Love, and Harry's lover, Marion, plot their own dreams' fulfillment's. All are sad clichés—and the trio are heroin addicts. From drug profits, Harry will build a coffeehouse for sensitive artists and writers where Marion's drawings will be admired; the black Tyrone will buy into the bliss of a modest suburb. But their endeavors only increase their addiction. Marion winds up in a sort of bisexual freak show working for her portion of bliss. Harry loses his arm from an infection and sinks into oblivion in a Miami hospital. Having gone south with Harry for a big pay-off, Tyrone gets to be brutalized by rednecks and thrown in prison. By now we have to ask if Selby Jr. has anything more to tell us along these lines.

—David M. Heaton

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