Tuesday, October 28, 2014

This American Life

"...and they walked hand in hand through the softness and he gave her a rose and she laid it across her hand like a scepter and gently raised it to her lips and its fragrance was enchantment and she smiled the smile of a rose, so soft, delicate, so lovely and the Bird was there oncemore, blowing, and she placed the rose on its satin cushion and let the robes slip from her body--Whatta yadoin?-- and they folded softly at her feet-- ya just gonna suckit."

The excerpt above exemplifies Hubert Selby Jr.'s prose style in his novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn: it veers from ethereal beauty to crude, ugly, physical excess, the effect of which is like imagining a young nymph's face smirched with a black eye, a fat lip, and two broken teeth. Scandalizing readers since 1964, the novel is divided into six stories with some recurring characters and places. The stories are not woven together by narrative but with an undercurrent of violence, brutal, horrible violence that is often terrible to imagine. There is no parental guidance rating system for novels, but if there were one, Last Exit would surely rate XXX-- if you were to read it at the wrong juncture in your life in an unhappy condition, it might conclusively plunge you into a very dark place of existential woe.

Consider the first story, "Another Day Another Dollar" in which two black army soldiers are jumped by the local gang of toughs outside a Brooklyn diner called The Greeks: "the blood in his mouth gurgled as he tried to scream, rolled down his chin then spumed forth as he vomited violently and someone stomped his face into the pool of vomit and the blood whirled slightly in arcs and a few bubbles gurgled in the puke as he panted and gasped and their shoes thudded into the shiteatinbastards kidneys..." And so on and so forth until the soldier is beaten beyond recognition. This isn't an altercation or a fight so much as it is a massacre, notably white on black.  One will notice Selby's writing style is similar to his contemporary, Jack Kerouac: run on sentences and criminal punctuation generated by a stream-of-conscious writing method, signifying an express lane from the writer's unconscious to the page. Selby's stories puts the controversy over On the Road and the Beats in context-- their Buddhism, pacifism and anti-materialism was more or less harmless to mainstream America. Selby's stories reveal to us the American way of life minus any philosophical or artistic meaning-- the violent, terrible id, the one engineered the theft of native peoples' land and justified slavery under the barrel of the gun. The characters in Last Exit are monsters without puritanical pretensions; their psychotic impulse is nearly unchecked, their agenda wholly corporeal and materialistic.

The most outrageous story is "Tralala," the title character a fifteen-year-old girl, proud of her breast size, which she utilizes to seduce sailors and traveling salesmen, and then, when they are sexually spent, she bludgeons them unconscious so that she might steal their wallets. It's an ugly life that is going nowhere and the story fast-forwards into the future, with Tralala still pushing her chest out as her last asset, no longer young, still pulling the same stunts, whooping it up in a bar:

"Tralala pulled her sweater up and bounced her tits on the palms of her hands and grinned and grinned and grinned and Jack and Fred whooped and roared and the bartender told her to put those goddamn things away and get thehelloutahere and Ruthy and Annie winked and Tralala slowly turned around bouncing them hard on her hands exhibiting her pride to the bar and she smiled and bounced the biggest most beautiful pair of tits in the world on her hands and someone yelled is that for real and Tralala shoved them in his face and everyone laughed and another glass fell from a table and guys stood and looked and the hands came out from under the skirt and beer was poured on Tralalas tits and someone yelled that she had been christened and the beer ran down her stomach and dripped from her nipples and she slapped his face with her tits and someone yelled youll smotherim to death-- what a way to die..."

Tralala's karma, never good, nevertheless does not deserve the comeuppance that happens later that afternoon, in which she is gang-raped by nearly everyone in the bar in the back of an abandoned car. The scene is described in lavish detail. Her unconscious body, left to simmer in the expunged fluids of dozens, is then desecrated by neighborhood children. No one ever calls for help or thinks this is wrong or sad. In the violence perpetrated by the children, Selby suggests that evil is our natural instinct. Or at the very least, society is so compromised that children are as monstrous as their uncles.

Hubert Selby, Jr in a gentler moment

There are no winners in the novel-- only losers, outcasts, and ne'erdowells. Family life is a joke, an abomination. The transvestite, Georgette, in "The Queen Is Dead" is a horror to her mother; in "Strike," Harry, a self-righteous blowhard who gets temporary status when his union goes on strike against the factory, is not a sensitive lover to his wife ("Harry shoved and pounded as hard as he could, wanting to drive the fucking thing out of the top of her head."); and in "Landsend" the fathers in the housing project are deadbeat dads, one and all, jobless, philandering, inattentive, lazy, and alcoholic. No redemption is possible when life is not examined. Living is day-by-day, whatever cash scrounged up, tucked away in a front pocket, nursing a hard-on and a bad attitude. Immersing yourself in these people's lives for 304 pages is to feel a bit dirty in aftermath. Selby might be a provocateur, an alarmist, or just tapping his own ferocious id-- whatever the reasons for him composing this wonderfully terrible novel I cannot begin to fathom. But he writes in a distinct signature style and does it very well. Take the ride, reader, but do so knowing it's going to be a stormy journey.

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