Hubert "Cubby" Selby Jr. (July 23, 1928 – April 26, 2004) was an American writer. His best-known novels are Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) and Requiem for a Dream (1978), exploring worlds in the New York area. Both novels were adapted later as films, and he appeared in small roles in each.
Selby wrote about a harsh underworld seldom portrayed in literature before then. His first novel was prosecuted for obscenity in Great Britain in 1967, and banned in Italy. His work was defended by leading writers. He was highly influential to more than a generation of writers. In addition to his works, for 20 years, he taught creative writing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he lived full-time after 1983.
Selby Jr. dropped out of school, and at the age of 15, persuaded recruiters to let him join the Merchant Marines. (His father had recently rejoined it.) In 1947, while at sea, Selby Jr. was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis due to the cows on board, which had bovine tuberculosis; doctors predicted that he would live less than a year.
He was taken off the ship in Bremen, Germany, and sent back to the United States. For the next three and a half years, Selby was in and out of the Marine Hospital in New York for treatment. Antibiotics had not been available and TB was widespread.
Selby went through an experimental drug treatment, streptomycin, that later caused some severe complications. During an operation, surgeons removed several of Selby's ribs in order to reach his lungs. One of his lungs collapsed, and doctors removed part of the other. While the surgery saved Selby's life, he had a year-long recuperation and chronic pulmonary problems for the rest of his life. Selby was given painkillers, among which morphine, because of the severity of the surgery, and he became addicted. He struggled with substance abuse for decades.
Becoming a writer
With no qualifications, no work experience aside from the Merchant Marine, and his poor health, Selby had trouble finding a job. He had married and he and his wife, nicknamed Tiny, had a daughter, Claudia. He raised their daughter while his wife worked in a department store.
For the next ten years, Selby was mostly bedridden; he was frequently hospitalized with a variety of lung-related ailments. The doctors offered a bleak prognosis, suggesting he was unlikely to survive long because he "just didn't have enough lung capacity". Gilbert Sorrentino, a childhood friend who had become a writer, encouraged Selby to write fiction. Unable to have regular work because of his health, Selby decided, "I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer."
He later wrote:
I was sitting at home and had a profound experience. I experienced, in all of my Being, that someday I was going to die, and it wouldn't be like it had been happening, almost dying but somehow staying alive, but I would just die! And two things would happen right before I died: I would regret my entire life; I would want to live it over again. This terrified me. The thought that I would live my entire life, look at it and realize I blew it forced me to do something with my life.
With no formal training, Selby used a raw language to portray the bleak and violent world that was part of his youth. He has said, "I write, in part, by ear. I hear, as well as feel and see, what I am writing. I have always been enamoured with the music of the speech in New York."
Little concerned with proper grammar, punctuation, or diction, Selby used unorthodox techniques in most of his works. He indented his paragraphs with alternating lengths, often by simply dropping down one line when finished with a paragraph. Like Jack Kerouac in his "spontaneous prose", Selby often completed his writing in a fast, stream-of-consciousness style. He replaced apostrophes with forward slashes "/," which were closer on the typewriter, to avoid interrupting his flow of writing. He did not use quotation marks. He might present a dialogue as a complete paragraph, with no denotion among alternating speakers. His prose was stripped down, bare and blunt.
Selby started working on his first short story, "The Queen Is Dead", in 1958. At the time, he had a succession of day jobs, but he wrote every night. During the day, he worked as a secretary, a gas station attendant, and a freelance copywriter. The short story developed slowly for the next six years before he published it.
In 1961, his short story "Tralala" was published in the literary journal, The Provincetown Review. It also appeared in Black Mountain Review and New Directions. His unstructured style and coarse descriptions supported his portrayal of the seedy life (ridden with violence, theft and mediocre con-artistry) and the gang rape of a prostitute. A number of critics attacked the subjects and harshness of the story. The journal editor was arrested for selling pornographicliterature to a minor. The journal was used as evidence in an obscenity trial, but the case was later dismissed on appeal.
As Selby continued to write, his longtime friend Amiri Baraka, the playwright, encouraged him to contact Sterling Lord, then Kerouac's agent. Selby combined "Tralala", "The Queen Is Dead" and four other loosely linked short stories as part of his first novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964). The novel was accepted and published by Grove Press, which had already published works by William S. Burroughs.
The novel was praised by many, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, who predicted that it would "explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years." But, at a time when literature excluded much that was harsh, not everyone wanted to read his detailed depictions of homosexuality and drug addiction, as well as gang rape and other forms of human brutality and cruelty. In 1967, the novel was prosecuted for obscenity in Great Britain. The notable British writer Anthony Burgess was among a number of writers who appeared as witnesses in its defense. The all-male jury's conviction was later reversed on appeal. The novel was banned in Italy.
In 1967, Selby moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to try to escape his addictions. That year, Selby met his future wife, Suzanne, at a bar in West Hollywood. The couple moved in together two days after they met. They married in 1969. For the next decade, they traveled back and forth between their home in Southern California and the East Coast, settling permanently in the Los Angeles area in 1983.
Although he wrote all his work while sober, Selby continued to battle drug addiction. In 1967 he was picked up for heroin possession and served two months in the Los Angeles County jail. After his release, he finally kicked the habit. He stayed clean of drugs and alcohol until his death. He refused morphine on his deathbed, although he was in pain.
Life after Last Exit to Brooklyn
In 1971, Selby published his second novel, The Room, which received positive reviews. It featured a criminally insane man, locked in a room in a prison, who reminisces about his disturbing past. Selby described The Room as "the most disturbing book ever written." He said he could not read it for decades after writing it.
A film adaptation of Last Exit to Brooklyn, directed by Uli Edel, was made in 1989. Selby appeared in Brooklyn in a brief cameo as a taxi driver. Requiem for a Dream (1978) was adapted as a film of the same name released in 2000. He had a small role as a prison guard taunting Marlon Wayans, suffering through forced labor while withdrawing.
In the 1980s, Selby met the punk rock singer Henry Rollins, who had long admired the writer's works and publicly championed them. Rollins helped broaden Selby's readership, and also arranged recording sessions and reading tours for Selby. Rollins issued original recordings through his own 2.13.61 publications, and distributed Selby's other works.
At least one work-in-progress remained unfinished and unpublished at the time of Selby's death: The Seeds of Pain and the Seeds of Love. Excerpts from this work are heard on the Live in Europe 1989 CD.
In popular culture
Selby's first work, "The Queen Is Dead" (appearing as a chapter in Last Exit to Brooklyn), inspired the name of an album by Manchester alternative rock group The Smiths.
In the book Was This Man a Genius? by Julie Hecht, the comedian Andy Kaufman is quoted saying that his favourite book is The Demon by Hubert Selby (p. 159).
Last Exit to Brooklyn inspired the name of Sting's first band, Last Exit.
The Manic Street Preachers song, "Of Walking Abortion", from the album The Holy Bible, begins with a quote from Selby: "I knew that someday I was gonna die. And I knew that before I died, two things would happen to me, that number one: I would regret my entire life; and number two: I would want to live my life over again."
British band Alt-J composed a song entitled "Fitzpleasure", inspired by the short story "Tralala" from Last Exit to Brooklyn.
In the Nicolas Winding Refn film "Bleeder", a character enters a book store asking for a Hubert Selby Jr. work.