Twenty-three years ago, on Oct. 12, 1989, a German production company released the film version of “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” the American counterculture classic novel originally published in 1964.
The long delay between the book's debut and the unveiling of the corresponding movie (by a foreign studio, no less) underscored the difficult, controversial, even shocking nature of the manuscript.
While the movie did not set the world on fire (it grossed less than $2 million in the U.S.), the original novel by Hubert Selby Jr. created an immediate sensation and launched an obscenity trial in the United Kingdom with far-reaching favorable consequences for subsequent literary works that were deemed immoral.
"Last Exit To Brooklyn," the book, comprised six generally independent short stories chronicling the grim (even hopeless) lives of the denizens of a working-class neighborhood on the Brooklyn waterfront (probably Red Hook) in the early 1950s.
Each chapter is prefaced by a Biblical verse -- but what follows veers far away from anything spiritual. The novel depicts a world of relentless violence, hostility, greed and an endlessly depressing cornucopia of amoral and feral behavior.
Gang violence, robbery, extortion, racial hatred, extreme poverty, chronic unemployment, theft, gang-rape, alcoholism, prostitution, drug abuse, transvestism, embezzlement, infanticide, adultery, pedophilia, unspeakable sexual fetishes, domestic violence ... these are but a portion of the filth and horror that fills each page of this tome.
The characters that populate Selby's Brooklyn appear to be hopelessly trapped and desperate to survive against overwhelming odds. These are not the striving, wholesome, upwardly mobile proletariat of Frank Capra’s movies aspiring to a better life; quite the contrary, Selby has created a menagerie of city-dwellers with virtually no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Almost every character is either a predator or a victim (or sometimes both).
Consider some of the more prominent characters featured in his tale of unremitting horror: Georgette, a drug-addicted homosexual prostitute hopelessly in love with a violent hoodlum named Vinnie who repeatedly abuses "her"; Tra-la-la, a completely amoral, foul-mouthed 18-year-old female prostitute who throws herself at anyone with any cash; and Harry Black, the repressed homosexual union official who not only beats his wife, but also illegally uses union funds (during a strike, no less) to entertain high-priced transvestite hookers. (For good measure, Harry also molests a 10-year-old boy).
The book is painful to trudge through for other reasons as well. Selby, perhaps imitating the nihilistic beatnik-jazz style of the 1950s, eschews the conventions of storytelling -- words are written phonetically, and there are no quotation marks to delineate what characters are actually saying versus what they are thinking. In addition, the thoughts and descriptions of the unknown narrator are interspersed with the characters' ravings, making for a confounding, confusing and frustrating cacophony of words and images.
Selby further aggravates the reader by repeating the same names for different characters -- for example, there exist at least two Vinnies, two Tonys, two Harrys, two Lucys and (in what is probably a subversive reference to the Blessed Virgin) at least three Mary's (an Italian-American housewife, a homosexual prostitute, and also the name of an upscale bar that caters to transvestite prostitutes and their johns).
In Selby's Brooklyn, husbands beat their wives over nothing; neighbors maliciously gossip about everyone; no one seems to care about anyone else (except maybe the lovelorn Georgette); and people appear to be addicted to seeking mindless thrills, including sex, drugs, alcohol and violence.
Characters are not fleshed out too well. They are not even physically described in much detail -- they are more like ghosts and shadows. It is their sin and immorality, rather than their corporeal beings, that seem to pervade the claustrophobic atmosphere, page after page after page.
Yet, despite all these frustrating obstacles and idiosyncrasies, once the reader gets used to its eccentric flow, "Last Exit To Brooklyn" is extremely engrossing and hypnotic -- the reader cannot comfortably "identify" nor sympathize with any of the protagonists but instead becomes eager to know the outcomes of their wretched lives.
One can only imagine the reaction this book elicited in 1964 –- in the days before homosexuality and drug abuse entered the national vernacular.
Selby, who died in 2004, claimed (rather incredibly) that he did not understand the magnitude of the controversy his landmark book produced; he asserted that he based the episodes on actual people he knew while toiling as a laborer in Brooklyn in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
It remains unclear what “message,” if any, Selby intended with this work –- perhaps that the urban jungle destroys human morality and aspirations and serves merely to degrade the body and spirit.
But if that was his intention, it remains a question as to whether he is lamenting this perceived reality, or, in a macabre way, celebrating it.