Last Exit to Brooklyn


To my considerable delight, Last Exit to Brooklyn has been reissued as a cheapo Penguin classic. To my considerable surprise, it has been classified amongst the ‘Classic Crime’ series. To my considerable dismay, Anthony Burgess’ original introduction has been supplanted. The new one has been written by Irvine Welsh.

To my mind, Trainspotting is a twentieth-century classic. I’d consider it a masterpiece and among my favorite books. What is remarkable about that book is that everything else Welsh has written, in my opinion, is shit. This introduction included.

I thought about the kind of introduction the book should have, and of course, it would be my personal response. So here goes.

I first read Last Exit to Brooklyn when I was nineteen and didn’t really understand it at all. In fact, I hated it. I was struck by the biblical quotations that headed each story, and by the hideous, graphic violence and depravity pulsating at the heart of them. My initial contact with the book was so potent, my rejection was almost physiological; when the sound is too loud, you can’t hear a thing.

I started working as a bouncer about this time and saw a lot of people abusing one another, and often preying on one another. I had grown up in the country, my father never drank in pubs, and I had no previous exposure to Aussie drinking culture. You can imagine my shock when I started working in nightclubs, watching people come out dressed in their best clothes, start drinking and then rapidly devolve into fucking and fighting.

I often asked people why they had tried to stab one another, or gouge my eyes out, or rape a girl in a toilet cubicle. Never an answer was forthcoming. I was struck by the way the police never asked, either. They seemed too irritated and exhausted to bother, even with me and my questions. As a result I kept coming back to the book, circling around it, like a dog with a pool of vomit. It was the only thing I could think of, that I had ever read or seen, that could parallel what I saw.

Last Exit… is very similar to James Joyce’s first book of short stories, Dubliners. That book is hard-bitten and raw, concerned with the everyday lives of the working-class Irish in Dublin. Selby’s book is even more caustic. Black Flag as opposed to the Sex Pistols; even lower sound production, and an even sparer style. There are just enough words to keep you in there, and the minimal punctuation pushes your eyes around to keep you on track. If Dubliners is a creaky wooden roller-coaster, then Last Exit is a pair of roller skates on the rusty rails themselves.

Selby Junior makes no explanation of the violence or depravity that is the book’s focus. He doesn’t take any moral stands; he just serves up atrocities like the sexual suicide of the prostitute Tralala like sides of raw flesh.

‘Tralala’ roughly traces the dissolution of a prostitute who is eventually fucked to death by a group of dozens of men in the vicinity of a garbage dump. This story was the real motivator for the obscenity trial in the UK. It’s not just the subject and description that caused the trouble; the story itself is an ethical cage which gives you no room to do anything but set your teeth against the bars.

The final scene is often described as a gang rape, but that’s not true. Tralala constantly calls them on, inciting them to fuck her, each and every one of them, until she passes out and they continue to brutalise her inert body as one man laughs in the background. If it were clearly a rape, you would be able to vent your horror as she suffered. There is no catharsis for the reader – just tension.

I used to work with a guy who once told me about attending a buck’s party at which the stripper was an older woman with a reputation for performing all kinds of bizarre acts, notably sitting down on an orange cone and swallowing it into her vagina for the entertainment of the men assembled. He told me about what a ‘hilarious’ spectacle it was. I imagined him laughing at Tralala.

I also worked somewhere else with another man who delighted in telling me about how he and one of his friends once went down to St Kilda in a panel van and negotiated with a prostitute to have sex with both of them. She got in the car, they drove her to a remote spot and when she got in the back of the van, there were another twelve men waiting.

“What did she do?” I asked.

“She was a good sport about it.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, she did the lot of us.”

Only Hubert Selby Junior could understand these things. Without his book, the horror would still be sticking to my skin.

The psychiatrist Judith Herman, author of the book on post-traumatic stress disorder Trauma and Recovery, wrote that an atrocity is by its definition, unspeakable; to speak of it is to break the social compact. Selby’s book squares up and takes on the social compact, toe-to-toe.

It sounds like a strange thing to say, but the biblical quotations which first seemed ironic later seemed apt because I think the book’s essential project is a Christian one; it seeks to confront you absolutely with men as beasts. The first story, ‘Another Day Another Dollar’, opens with a quotation from Ecclesiastes:

“For that which befalleth the sons of man

befalleth beasts; even one thing

befalleth them: As the one dieth, so dieth

the other; yea, they have all one breath,

So that a man hath no preeminence

above a beast: for all is vanity.”

– Ecclesiastes, 3:19

The violence and depravity in the book is explicitly linked to suffering. And just behind the veil of it is the question, as bold and emphatic as graffiti on a wall, ‘Can you love these people? Can you empathise with them?’

As humans, we are animals. We are driven to shit and fuck and eat and fight and sleep. And not much else. Civility and society is an attempt to regulate it and drug use is an attempt to get away from it. Culture is how we cope. All else, as Ecclesiastes would say, is vanity. Selby Junior agrees, and so do I.

In the novel Night by Elie Weisel, the protagonist asks his father, a rabbi, what he should be asking God for when he says his prayers. The rabbi replies that the answers are not important. By asking the right questions, you are held in the correct dialogue with God. And that tension creates a meaningful existence.

Great books do not give prescriptive answers. In fact, the best books don’t give any answers at all. They provoke the questions that keep us in empathetic tension with other people and the things we believe. Thus, they have the power to make us better than we are. But they demand we pay for them with courage.

Hermann Hesse said that the duty of every person was to take the whole world into his soul and digest it. Successful, courageous living is about living with your terrors, not ostracizing them and shifting them into ghettos, which is the essence of the middle-class project. Hubert Selby Junior’s monolithic novel is both a challenge and guide.





One Response to “Last Exit to Brooklyn”

  1. Very deep.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: