Zu: Hubert Selby, Jr. - Last Exit to Brooklyn

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Hubert Selby, Jr. - short biography

2. The American City and Last Exit to Brooklyn
2.1. The American City in the 1940s and 1950s
2.2. The Setting of Last Exit to Brooklyn

3. Last Exit to Brooklyn - the narratives
3.1. Another Day Another Dollar
3.2. The Queen is Dead
3.3. And Baby Makes Three
3.4. Tralala
3.5. Strike
3.6. Landsend - the coda

4. Mottoes

5. Reflections on Last Exit to Brooklyn
5.1. The "loss of control"
5.2. Morality
5.3. The city portrait

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix

1. Hubert Selby, Jr. - short biography

Hubert Selby, Jr. was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928. In 1944, at the age of fifteen he joined the US marines. After a few months on harbor duties, he sailed to join the closing stages of World War 2. Two years later, in Germany, he was taken off ship suffering from tuberculosis. The doctors said he could not live more than two months, both lungs were totally shot. He got back to the US and spent the next four years in hospital. That was the time he started reading. By the time he got out of the hospital, he had ten ribs removed, one lung collapsed and a piece of the other one removed.

A couple of years later, he had to go to the hospital again. The doctors were telling him again that he is going to die, that he should just go home and sit quietly and he would soon be dead. His response to this statement was, "Fuck you, no one tells me what to do!" After that he realized that someday he was going to die. He knew two things were going to happen before he died. Number one, he would regret his entire life. Number two, he would want to live his life over again. And he would die. That absolutely terrified him to think he would live his entire life, look at it and say, "Jeez, I blew it. I blew the whole thing." So he got a typewriter and started writing. "This didn't make me a writer, but provided the incentive to discover that I am a writer." So, during this time of bad health, he returned to Brooklyn, started to drink and take drugs and wrote his first book Last Exit to Brooklyn which he finished after six years and was published in the US in 1964.

Allen Ginsberg once said that Hubert Selby, Jr.'s debut, Last Exit to Brooklyn"should explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years."

Two years later, the book was published in England and offended some conservative people; it was then prosecuted for obscenity and came on the index. Selby said about the court case, "I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. I mean, Last Exit is almost obsessively moral - even I can see that - and yet they had a debate over it for over two weeks in the House of Commons. It was a farce. But at that time, anybody could bring a private obscenity case against any publisher in England."

Another factor of Last Exit that the critics could not get their heads around was Selby's phonetic, unconventional stream-of-consciousness prose. Selby about that, "My object is to put the reader through an emotional experience, and I succeeded so well that a lot of the critics believed I was an illiterate who sat down and typed as fast as he could. ... I was struggling to find out what writing meant, and to understand the essence of the story and create a work of art from that story. I knew I had to reflect the psychodynamics of an individual through the rhythm and beat of a prose line."

Since then, Hubert Selby Jr. wrote The Room (1971), The Demon (1976), Requiem for a Dream (1978), Song of the Silent Snow (1986) and twelve years later, in 1998 The Willow Tree. In 1989 he went on a spoken-word tour with Henry Rollins across Europe and read selections of his work to the audience. Now, he lives in Los Angeles, California.

2. The American City and Last Exit to Brooklyn

2.1. The American City in the 1940s and 1950s

The 1950s in the United States were a decade of economic expansion, cold-war nationalism, and moral conservatism. The US were a prosperous society, in which poverty was largely hidden from public view. America had the surface appearance of a society free to concentrate on improving the quality of life. While the upper and middle class continued to prosper, 40 to 50 million Americans lacked the basic goods necessary for human existence. The economy moved from blue-collar work to service jobs. Welfare programs failed to improve the living conditions of the poor, who were more or less left to themselves. Breaking the cycle of poverty was only possible for a very few individuals. For lower working-class families it was only possible to rise to a level of economic security when both of the parents worked. Thus women had to cope with two jobs - at home and at work. This often led to further familial and social disruptions. Children were neglected and left to themselves unprotected from violence and crime in the neighborhood.

Starting in the 1930s, but having its peak in the 1950s, suburbanization drew middle-class families from the inner city areas to the suburbs. Thus, segregation, dependent on the income and also on race again, started. Large low-rent housing projects further concentrated the poor in a few areas and so increased their segregation. At the same time, the share of New York's poor continually increased. After 1940 many Black working-class families migrated to Brooklyn. In the 1950s more Americans lived in slums than on farms. While the demands of consumers have continually risen, the income of the poor, their share of power and their prospects in the community have stagnated. The 1950s began to accumulate a potential of frustration and despair. Between 1950 and the late 1960s the crime rate more than doubled.

As a consequence of suburbanization, the inner cities lost their economic power to the suburbs and slum areas developed, because there was no money to maintain the houses in a decent way. So they became substandard. Under the Housing Act of 1949, delapidated slums were bulldozed and replaced by new buildings, but the ex-residents could not return to their area because of the smaller number of units and the extremely high rents. Low-rent housing projects were built to give these people a home again (see Appendix). But soon they deteriorated into social disaster areas with high unemployment and high crime rates. In some housing projects crime rates were twice as high as in the city as a whole. But the rise in crime cannot simply be equated with the increased deprivation of people. It is the absence of collective hopes and the breakdown of social structures that are responsible for violence and crime of the poor.

Before suburbanization, Brooklyn had been a stable middle-class borough. In the post-war years it drastically lost jobs, tax revenues and middle-class population.

2.2. The Setting of Last Exit to Brooklyn

Last Exit to Brooklyn records the claustrophobic world of an inner-city slum in Brooklyn in the late 1940s and 1950s. The book contains three main parts: four rather short narratives, a longer narrative called Strike and a coda Landsend. The four narratives are Another Day Another Dollar, The Queen is Dead, And Baby Makes Three and Tralala. These first four narratives are set in the late 1940s in the Bush Terminal area around Second Avenue and 58th Street. The coda is set in and around a low income housing project in the Red Hook area near Gowanus Canal on a day in the late 1950s. The Red Hook buildings were labelled as "Hell's Kitchen."

Specific places and times are never described and are more often implied than indicated. The environment emerges largely through the characters and is less a physical one than a socio-psychological one. Throughout the book the emphasis is on character and situation, the states of mind and behavior, action and interaction of individuals and groups. Hubert Selby Jr. shows the daily routine of his characters that are more or less human trash. The book describes deep alienation and despair among working-class Brooklynites.

Last Exit to Brooklyn deals with the transition of the old street-corner slum to a low-rent housing project of the 1950s, which is the result of liberal urban planning and welfare programs. Selby shows that even in new buildings the slum dwellers remain trapped and the characters are bored to death. Doing so, Selby gives voice to people that are usually voiceless, like for instance Vinnie, a member of a street-gang, Georgette, a transvestite or Tralala, a prostitute. His characters are isolated transients whose lives have been ruined and who have become dependent: they are alcoholics, junkies, transvestites, prostitutes, thugs, juvenile delinquents and insignificant criminals. They are living at the margin of society and are the 'losers of society'. All of the characters are physically, psychologically and socially confined, almost all of them are immobile, they do not leave their narrow neighborhood of hangout places, apartments or streets. This neighborhood is a miserable and hopeless one. There are delapidated tenements, factory buildings, warehouses, an army base, transvestites' bars and pubs close to each other. This neigborhood automatically leads its inhabitants to violence, as one can read in almost every part of the book.

The novel is about the world of drug-addicts and social dropouts, it presents the slum conditions and the view from below. Selby himself was involved in this world, "I lived their life. I wasn't looking in. I was in." - although he had a certain distance, "Even as I was hanging out with those guys down at the army base - those guys I wrote about in Last Exit -, every now and then I would find myself wandering off to the museum alone." It is a paralyzed slum world in which the rebellions of its abandoned citizens have become utterly self-destructive. Selby's Brooklynites do not participate in the glamor of cosmopolitan New York, which is just a subway ride away. Last Exit to Brooklyn is a fictional document of poverty in a prosperous society.

3. Last Exit to Brooklyn - the narratives

3.1. Another Day Another Dollar

Another day Another Dollar tells the story of Vinnie and his guys, who are jobless and can barely spend any money. Trouble for them has started very early, at ages when they were not responsible for their actions. Only violence, which erupts every now and then, may break their boredom and stasis.

... and Vinnie said whattefuck, hed start, and they formed a circle around him and he turned slowly jerking his head quickly trying to catch the one punching him so he would replace him in the center and he was hit in the side and when he turned he got hit again and as he spun around 2 fists hit him in the back then another in the kidney and he buckled and they laughed... (LB, p. 13)1[1]

Just two pages later, the cruelty and aggression turn into an uncontrolled fury when the guys beat up a soldier (they call the soldiers 'doggies').

The guys jumped off the fender and leaped on the doggies back and yanked him down and he fell on the edge of the hood and then to the ground. They formed a circle and kicked. He tried to roll over on his stomach and cover his face with his arms, but as he got to his side he was kicked in the groin and stomped on the ear and he screamed, cried, started pleading then just cried as a foot cracked his mouth, ... (LB, p. 17)

The soldier is driven up against the army base fence. Vinnie and the guys of his gang go back to the 'Greek's', the bar they always hang around, and behave as if nothing had happened. They wash their hands and faces, joking and are glad that there was at least something that had happened. One could say, the guys are mentally and morally disadvantaged. They are obsessed with the unattainable fashionable symbols of a consumer society and frustrated by the monotony of an empty life. They consequently seek relief in periodical outbreaks of violence. There is always a convenient scapegoat they can beat up. Vinnie and his guys seem to enjoy beating up other people that are in this situation inferior to them. Such a fight is the highlight of their day, an escape from their deadly boredom. When they are not fighting they are sitting in the 'Greek's' and talking about cars they can never buy. Although their world is fully segregated, it is influenced by Manhattan and Mainstream America, namely through the mass media, which connect them to the aspirations and material lures of America in general.

Watching cars roll by. Identifying them. Make. Model. Year. Horse power. Overhead valve. V-8. 6, 8, a hundred cylinders. Lots a horses. Lots a chrome. Red and Amber grill lights. Yasee the grill on the new Pontiac? Man, thats real sharp. Yeah, but a lousy pickup. Cant beat a Plymouth fora pickup. Shit. Cant hold the road like a Buick. Outrun any cop in the city with a Roadmaster. (LB, p. 11)

What set Vinnie and his guys apart from conventional society was their absence of moral restraint. They do not seem to have any aesthetics, they are just mean and rude. Their environment made them numb towards any human feelings besides aggression, rage and fury.


Excerpt out of 22 pages


Zu: Hubert Selby, Jr. - Last Exit to Brooklyn
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (American Studies)
Hauptseminar Words of the City - City of Words: The City in American Literature III: 1950 - 1980
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
547 KB
Hubert, Selby, Last, Exit, Brooklyn, Hauptseminar, Words, City, Words, City, American, Literature
Quote paper
Gritt Hönighaus (Author), 2000, Zu: Hubert Selby, Jr. - Last Exit to Brooklyn, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/3431


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Zu: Hubert Selby, Jr. - Last Exit to Brooklyn

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free