Annotation by Jennifer Rhodes
In English class one of the first things programmed into our brains is that a good story consists of six basic parts: the introduction, the presentation of the conflict, the rising action, the climax, the falling action and the resolution. To conveniently reaffirm this message, virtually every book our teachers assigned during those formative years fit perfectly into that mold. Thank God for Hubert Selby who turned the whole notion of a neat, satisfying resolution on its head.
Last Exit to Brooklyn is a compilation of short stories detailing the seedy underbelly of Brooklyn society. Misadventures in the lives of its prostitutes, thugs, drag queens, thieves and other undesirables are relayed in prose as jarring and startling as the stories themselves. While the movie Pretty Woman presented audiences with a hooker’s happy ending, Selby takes the more realistic approach. No prostitute in his book is whisked away by a rich financier; she is gang-raped in the open and left to languish on the street. Sailors are not portrayed as valiant, untouchable heroes, but become the unfortunate victims of violent thugs. Selby’s characters often meet such fates: left battered and bruised, alone and helpless.
The reader is challenged to look at societal rejects and explore who each character is at the core of his being: Harry who embezzles from the union may be, in another story, brushed off as a run-of-the-mill crook. Here he is portrayed as a man with severe feelings of inadequacy. He feels hopeless, sexually frustrated and is trapped in a dead end job and marriage. The prostitute in most stories is a runaway who is pimped out and taken advantage of. In Selby’s work, however, Tralala is initially introduced as a woman who controls her own destiny: she does what she likes, gets paid for it and steals from her customers.
Each story begins with a bible verse that serves to describe that story’s overall theme. One of the most effective examples is the sexually charged Song of Solomon prefacing the tale of prostitute Tralala. Also effective is the reuse of Harry. Those familiar with Selby’s work will recognize Harry, a character Selby repeatedly uses to represent the Everyman portrayed in his work.
Selby’s writing blatantly ignores grammatical convention. Quotation marks are not used when a character speaks and slash marks replace apostrophes. His paragraphs are written as stream of consciousness where run-on sentences and fragments abound. Many paragraphs are written entirely in caps and slang terms while pronunciations typical of his characters’ language patterns are often used in place of real words. This coarse writing style only reinforces the brutality and roughness seen in the stories.
While no story’s conclusion ties up all loose ends, as our teachers told us a story’s resolution should, Selby achieves something greater. By leaving his endings raw, the reader is left wondering about each character and what will happen to him in the future. Selby’s ability to make the reader think about the characters’ fates after the story ends makes Last Exit to Brooklyn an effective story which provokes its readers and leaves them invested in its characters.