Sunset Park may not give off the hip image of Brooklyn blanketing the zeitgeist in modern day pop culture but in the late 1940s and 50s it had a lot of “exciting” things going on — exciting if the seedy underworld was your thing. No novel describes these dark scenes better than Hubert Selby Jr.’s (1928-2004) extraordinarily bleak Last Exit to Brooklyn published in 1964. Six loosely connected short stories set around the Brooklyn Army Terminal overlooking the East River as it empties into the bay — 1st Avenue and 58th Street is pretty desolate today so I can only imagine the vibe 50+ years ago.
Selby’s spontaneous prose mirrored that of Jack Kerouac’s and his frank descriptions of violence, drug use and sexuality landed him in the hot seat with censors in England and Italy. It’s no wonder Grove Press took on the book — the publishing house released an uncensored version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Topic of Cancer around the same time and went to trial to keep them released. Selby has said he hated God at the time of writing Last Exit due to the way his life played out up until then — it’s easy to see why considering his backstory.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, he grew up on 3rd Avenue and 72nd Street in Bay Ridge. While in the Merchant Marines he contracted tuberculosis and was sent back to the States for treatment where he underwent excruciating operations, one requiring the removal of part of a lung and three ribs just to get to it. Laid up and in pain he was given painkillers and heroin which he eventually became addicted to and struggled with for years. With the bleak prognosis of a short life and fear of regret at the end of it he chose to write because as he thought “I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer“.
If only it were that easy.
In 1967 he moved to Los Angeles and published five more novels including The Room and Requiem for a Dream as well as a short story collection. In his later years he taught creative writing at the University of Southern California and even had time to become good friends with Henry Rollins.
What: Brooklyn Army Terminal, Last Exit to Brooklyn
Who: Hubert Selby, Jr.
Where: 1st Avenue and 58th Street