In 'Last Exit,' Brooklyn Is A Character, Too

Last Exit to Brooklyn
Last Exit to Brooklyn
By Hubert Selby Jr.
Paperback, 320 pages
Grove Press
List price: $14
Read An Excerpt

There are a lot of books I'd like to tell you I always reach for, books I'm supposed to love ...

But the one I actually always have by my side is Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr. I don't know why this is my book. As a girlfriend said, "Why would you recommend that book to people?"

I know. It's graphic. It's violent. But I've purchased Last Exit to Brooklyn three times now because I have mistakenly given it to a friend or put it in storage like an idiot, thinking I could live without it. I can't.

Selby Jr.'s voice always draws me in. He writes in Brooklyn street slang and doesn't delineate between what characters think and what they say. The result in Last Exit is somewhere between poetry and profanity.

The book itself is set in the '50s in an area of Brooklyn so harsh that any sign of weakness is met with violence. So the dialogue reflects the type of neighborhood where someone might rape you or beat you half to death because they don't like the way you walk.

There is Harry, the closeted strike leader who uses union petty cash to discover the world of drag queens; Tralala, the money hungry young girl who sees her bust as her ticket to a better life. And she's completely shameless about it. And Georgette, the transvestite, who is in love with a young neighborhood criminal and imagines herself always closer to her goal of being his exclusive girlfriend.

Mishna Wolff i i

Mishna Wolff is a humorist and the author of the bestselling memoir I'm Down. Courtesy of Mishna Wolff hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Mishna Wolff
Mishna Wolff

Mishna Wolff is a humorist and the author of the bestselling memoir I'm Down.

Courtesy of Mishna Wolff

They are not the kind of characters you normally root for; they are too flawed in very destructive ways. It's like rooting for the schoolyard bully because you found out that when he's not slamming people into lockers he likes butterflies. The beauty of Last Exit is that, against the odds, these characters are reaching. So as much as you are revolted by their flaws, you also start to see them as the product of their own fight against this neighborhood.

In that way, the neighborhood becomes a character — the antagonist out to crush hope. And Selby Jr.'s characters try so hard to defeat that antagonist — they love, they dream, they try to transcend their lot.

And they fail and are beaten down. But surprisingly, it feels life-affirming, as though that thing that makes them try is some basic life force that cannot be killed no matter how depraved an environment it lives in — the will to survive. And there is something inspiring about their courage — to stand for themselves in this cruel neighborhood and say, "I'm here. This is me. I am here."

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Last Exit To Brooklyn'

Last Exit to Brooklyn
Last Exit to Brooklyn
By Hubert Selby Jr.
Paperback, 320 pages
Grove Press
List price: $14

They sprawled along the counter and on the chairs. Another night. Another drag of a night in the Greeks, a beatup all night diner near the Brooklyn Armybase. Once in a while a doggie or seaman came in for a hamburger and played the jukebox. But they usually played some goddam hillbilly record. They tried to get the Greek to take those records off, but hed tell them no. They come in and spend money. You sit all night and buy notting. Are yakiddin me Alex? Ya could retire on the money we spend in here. Scatah. You dont pay my carfare …

24 records on the jukebox. They could have any 12 they wanted, but the others were for the customers from the Base. If somebody played a Lefty Frazell record or some other shitkicker they moaned, made motions with their hands (man! What a fuckin square) and walked out to the street. 2 jokers were throwing quarters in so they leaned against the lamppost and carfenders. A warm clear night and they walked in small circles, dragging the right the right foot slowly in the hip Cocksakie shuffle, cigarettes hanging from mouths, collars of sportshirts turned up in the back, down and rolled in front. Squinting. Spitting. Watching cars roll by. Identifying them. Make. Model. Year. Horse power. Overhead vavle. 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, that's real sharp. Yeah, but a lousy pickup. Cant beat a Plymouth fora pickup. Shit. Cant hold the road like a Buik. Outrun any cop in the city with a Roadmaster. If ya get started. Straightaways. Turns. Outrun the law. Dynaflows. Hydramatics. Cant get started. Theyd be all overya before ya got a block. Not in the new 88. Ya hit the gas and it throwsya outta the seat. Great car. Aint stealin nothin else anymore. Greatest for a job. Still like the Pontiac. If I was buyin a car. Put a fender skirts on it, grill lights, a set a Caddy hubcaps and a bigass aerial in the rear … shit, thats the sharpest job on the road. Your ass. Nothin can touch the 47 Continental convertible. Theyre the end. We saw one uptown the other day. What-a-fuckin-load. Man!!! The shitkickers still wailed and they talked and walked, and talked and walked, adjusting their shirts and slacks, cigarettes flipped into the street — ya shoulda seen this load. Chartreuse with white walls. Cruise around in a load like that with the top down and a pair of shades and some sharp clothes and ya haveta beat the snatch off with a club — spitting after every other word, aiming for a crack in the sidewalk; smoothing their hair lightly with the palms of their hands, pushing their d a/s gently and patting them in place, feeling with their fingertips for a stray hair that may be out of place and not hanging with the proper effect — ya should see the sharp shirts they got in Obies. That real great gabadine. Hey did yadig that sharp silverblue sharkskin suit in the window? Yeah, yeah. The onebutton single breasted job with the big lapels — and whats to do on a night like this. Just a few drops of gas in the tank and no loot to fill it up. And anyway, wheres to go — but ya gotta have a onebutton lounge. Ya wardrobe aint complete without one. Yeah, but I dig that new shawl job. Its real sharp even as a sports jacket — the con rolled on and no one noticed that the same guys were saying the same things and somebody found a new tailor who could make the greatest pants for 14 skins; and how about the shockabsorbers in the Lincoln; and they watched the cars pass, giving hardlooks and spitting; and who laid this broad and who laid that one; and someone took a small brush from his pocket and cleaned his suede shoes then rubbed his hands and adjusted his clothing and someone else flipped a coin and when it dropped a foot stamped on it before it could be picked up and as he moved the leg from the coin his hair was mussed and he called him a fuck and whipped out his comb and when his hair was once more neatly in place it was mussed again and he got salty as hell and the other guys laughed and someone else's hair was mussed and they shoved each other and someone else shoved and then someone suggested a game of mum and said Vinnie should start and they yelled yeah and Vinnie said whatthefuck, 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 and he jerked around and caught a shot in the stomach and fell but he pointed and he left the center and just stood for a minute in the circle catching his wind then started punching and felt better when he hit Tony a good shot in the kidney without being seen and Tony slowed down and got pelted for a few minutes then finally pointed and Harry said he was fullashit, he didn’t really see him hitim. But he was thrown in the center anyway and Tony waited and hooked him hard in the ribs and the game continued for another 5 minutes or so and Harry was still in the center, panting and almost on his knees and they were rapping him pretty much as they pleased, but they got bored and the game broke up and they went back in the Greeks, Harry still bent and panting, the others laughing, and went to the lavatory to wash.

Excerpted from Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. Copyright 1964 by Hubert Selby Jr. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.

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