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on 29 March 2005
I am very glad that I've read this book, but now I have, I will never read it again.

It is a hard-boiled account about marginalised people - a prostitute, a transvestite, a convict, and a sexually troubled trade union leader amongst others. The style of writing is utterly refreshing and compelling, the characterisation astonishing, and beating from deep within the book is a heart and humanity. It is not though a dispassioned or sanitised book - the words "raw" and "gritty" are a massive understatement at times.

Be in no doubt that this book can be brutal, it pulls no punches and it often leaves a dirty bloody taste in your mouth whilst reading it.

It's a very good book, there's no doubt about it, but be prepared for a painful and uneasy read. There are no happy endings.
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on 14 January 2003
Last exit to Brooklyn is the only Selby Jnr. book I have read, yet will undoubtedly not be the last. Read in a stuffy hostel in Spain while ill, I was transfixed by a world of degredation, mysogyny, and utter contempt. The characters that Selby Jnr. portrays are visceral and hateful - Tralala is almost like a modern day Lulu, and ultimately deserves what she gets. Vince and his pals are hateful characters not unlike Burgess' Clockwork Orange mob - disrespectful to everyone and everything and getting away with it. It seems that Selby Jnr. is trying to show how the characters all use and abuse each other and ultimately, none are the better for it. This book is seedy, and the characters hateful, yet it had me gripped to the end.I still don't know why I enjoyed it so much and could not put it down - maybe this is Selby Jnr.s way of showing that we can be just as perverse as these fictional characters. Sickeningly enjoyable and made even more contreversial when thinking of the trouble Selby Jnr. had in getting it published. Will definitely be reading more of his work.
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on 12 December 2004
Everyone should read this book once; sometimes it hurts to turn the page and watch another character that you have grown quietly fond of reach their inevitable downfall, or make the mistakes that you know are in their nature but that you don't want to see them make. By showing the nastier parts of mans characteristics unashamadly, Selby gives us not just a book, but a warning.
As much as people hate to see it, there is a little bit of one of the characters in all of us, whether the violent and materialistic Tralala or the tormented and love struck Georgette and it hurts to see our own natures portrayed so graphically in any text. But as difficult as this sometimes is, you walk away feeling somewhat cleansed and moved to not make the same mistakes. An unmissable piece of brilliance.
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on 18 November 2000
This was Hubert Selby Jr. debut novel and such was the power of the book that in the UK, the original publishers were taken to court to be prosecuted for obscenity. Luckily for us the case was thrown out but the book has a raw power that is both compassionate and horrifying.
Selby writes sketches of various lives living in Brooklyn. All trying to survive on a estate that continually grinds them down. People do nasty things to each other but Selby doesn't condemn his characters but trys to comprehend them.
The stories are bitter and raw, from Tralala who cannot distinguish between sex and love to Harry, a repressed homosexual who lets out his anger on his workers, his wife, his children because he has never come to terms with his sexuality.
Selby writes in a prose style that ignores every rule of school grammer bar one: it has to be understood by the reader.
There are no speech marks, semi-colons and rarely does a comma appear. The effect is stunning, the text hits the mind like bullets as the emotion crosses out of the page. If you thought William Burrough's 'Naked Lunch' was a daring literary experiment, try 'Last Exit to Brooklyn'.
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Life beyond social veils may be difficult to swallow. Dickens wrote about working class life with a dose of sentimentality pandering to his literati readership. The people he was writing about were not literate enough to read about themselves so he had to water his bile for bourgeois taste. After all, he could not afford to upset his readership with too much reality otherwise they would not buy his books. Even so he was a pioneer of life beyond the aspidistra spending his time visiting his Dad in Marshalsea Prison.

Selby however wrote at a time when working class people were climbing out of the sewers following the GI Bill. This allowed ex servicemen to get an education for free. This was the greatest social experiment ever attempted in USA. Those who survived the war could not only learn to read and write but also go to university. When they got there they realised there were no stories about them and their lives. There was just a blank.

Difficult to imagine as the US seems to be the archetype of free, easy and available, but this was fought for, rather than given. Selby was one of those who shoved the envelope as far as he could. The novel was banned for its salaciousness evidently. Why anyone would want to get hot and steamy about the types of sex in this novel is the subject Havelock Ellis dissected and was documented in the Kinsey Report?

Before Selby everything was Jane Austen, Bronte Sisters, Chaucer, Shakespeare or cowboys and indians. A whole chapter of American street life had been wiped clean. How many films have been made about urban squalor of the big cities in the 1900's, a time of turmoil? How many portray the licentiousness of pre-narcotic prohibition. Yes there was a time in the USA when you could buy a Cocaine cordial or a morphine pick you up from the local chemist/bar/charltan. All nicely shoved under the carpet a collective amnesia always needed to keep reality at bay. In the 50's the country was rolled over with Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Audrey Murphy and countless other two bit actors enacting genocide on indigenents in the name of Ntatainment.

If the 1900's did appear it was comedy...Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Harold Lloyd...If it was the 1950's musical and comedy dominated home entertainment. Elvis reeked sex but not poverty when he turned the lights on in the 20th C.

Selby wrote about what he saw about him in Brooklyn New York and it is not pretty. Then again having lived and worked in an x docklands area of S London this rings clear, loud and true. Life is nasty brutish short but also lived, a far cry from the rosy cheeked world of academia.Strikes fighting, pederasty, rape, sex working, drug use and an everpresent squall of depression. Last Exit exists.

This is a collection of stories, snapshots of life just before the war finished. Soldiers and Sailors roaming New York for a last fling before they meet their maker are smashed over the head with a bottle and their money ripped away from them. They will not be needing a roll of dough where they are heading. Women and Gays are just holes to be filled in between the drunken stumble between fights. The strike is a battle of masculine wills between the hard men and the soft men. In between is the self disgust, loathing, nighmares and a bombsite anhilating self esteem. This is all blustered with talk about girls, beer and fights.

Harry is the "hero" a man who milks the union and lives within its shadow is used as an enforcer. The factory forces the workers on strike to cut costs and Harry is the sacrificial lamb, literally as Cubby invokes the cross. In between we are led through the bachanal and Harry's loathing of his wife and kid. The book is a collection of short stories on similar themes. All written in the machine gun Brookly style of cynicism based on realism.

Open it up and immerse yourself in the sex, beatings, laughter and heartache and then sit back and thank yourself you can put it down and get on with the ironing. In having your views confirmed or eyes opened the net step is think whether that BMW or Laura Ashley dress is going to make the world a better place.
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on 13 November 2013
I have read this book 3 to 4 times and never tire it, its life in the raw, vicious with no hope of escape , Some books leave you with a warm glow this book leaves you bloodied and bruised . Brilliant
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on 31 January 2003
I don't know, maybe it's me and my own issues, and my macabre mind and my attraction to the 'other' life, and my romantic notion of it all, but there was something charming in this book - other reviews have stipulated how you were unable to take a liking to any of the characters and I worry as I differ in opinion. There was something, without putting my finger on it, that I was almost in love with - the characters, some kind of loneliness and watching them reach out and hide away and, something almost vulnerable about them. How did they get there, it depends on your notion of society - do you think there are inherently evil people? I believe - perhaps naïvely - that there is a good in us all, and so reading about the back ends of Brooklyn life, about the down and outs, I was somewhat smitten. Selby has a great talent in making you the watcher, who needs a movie when he creates one in your own mind, in his vernacular, in his eschewing all grammatical correctness, in rambling on and on and on, but it's okay - because you want him to carry on and on and on. I can understand why Anthony Burgess was such a supporter of this book when it went through such pains to be able to published in the United Kingdom, for there is a lot about Selby's writing - and especially this work - that reminds me a lot of A Clockwork Orange, not only the characters, and their immoral selves, but also the writing and it's daring to take leaps to grounds that are untouched.
The reason that it was stopped from publication is apparently that its gross and obscene, and I have struggled to understand how! It's life, it happens, open your eyes - it's you and me, if we had taken that road. But how superbly he picks up on it, how superb indeed!
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on 7 December 2009
I will never forget how it felt to read this book.

The language here seems to do things I thought were only possible on film or on mind altering drugs: it creates a world so vivid that as a reader I was trapped by it, in a universe of sharp edges, hopelessly real. I hadn't felt so wrapped up in a novel since I read Huckleberry Finn - which is in my top 5 favourite American Novels of all times. (The similarities stop there though).

There are no likeable characters in Last Exit (I felt both pity and resentment towards them and the combination made me uneasy), so you will need to find a way to appreciate the text outside of the identification process. The narrator will not guide you nor prepare you for the horror of what is to come. Everything is crude, desperate, wretched and violent - as if to hint that reality is being served up unaltered.

I cannot but admire the author's success in crafting this text, with no central character to cling to, no overall plot to follow but just a cold shower of 'reality' - un-apologizing, un-moralising and completely devoid of hope. People seem to interact on a very superficial level - they are unable to understand themselves and unwilling to see others. Each is stuck in the prison of his mind, pointlessly banging his head against its bars with inexhaustible rage.

Zola meets Welsh? Haunting? gut wrenching? These are all terms I don't like using because they have lost their impact, but this book makes me wish they hadn't. This is like the rape scene in Irreversible, the flogging in The Heart is deceitful above all things, like the men killed off by cold and exhaustion in If this is a man. It is like being shoved into Bolgia 5 and knowing that there is NO EXIT.

This novel reminded me of what literature can do.
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on 18 June 2004
An amazingly written book, which is in a style so completely original it makes Selby stand out as an amazing author. The story of desperately lonely transvestite Gearogette left me feeling physically sick, although this does not sound like a good thing it shows just how powerful the stories are and how lifelike they become through Selby's writing. This is the type of book that wil stay with the reader long after they have finished it. Hubert Selby's death earlier this year will leave a great loss so i recomend to everyone to read the stunning novels he left behind.
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on 13 August 2015
“Last Exit to Brooklyn”- Selby took his title from a traffic direction sign- is normally described as a “novel”, but there is no single continuous narrative and it might better be regarded as a series of six loosely interconnected short stories and novellas, all set in the New York Borough of Brooklyn during the 1950s, around a decade before it was published. It was a highly controversial work when it first came out in 1964, largely because it dealt with such taboo subjects as rape, homosexuality transvestism and drug use. It was the subject of a famous British obscenity trial; at first instance the publishers were convicted, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.

The book was not only controversial on account of its subject-matter; Selby’s prose style also raised a few eyebrows. It is written in slangy, demotic language, with much use of profanity. Words are often contracted or run together and spelt according to the rules of colloquial New York pronunciation rather than of strict English orthography. Nor does the book follow normal rules of punctuation; there are, for example, no apostrophes and, more radically, no speech marks. The effect of this can be disconcerting; one reviewer complains that it is not always possible to say whether a character is thinking, speaking or narrating. The same point occurred to me, but unlike that reviewer I felt that this confusion was not an error or evidence of sloppy writing on Selby’s part but something done quite deliberately for effect. It seemed to me that Selby was aiming at creating a new, experimental style of prose, somewhere in between traditional third-person storytelling and modernist first-person stream-of-consciousness narrative.

It is notable that even in passages ostensibly written in the third person there is no single omniscient narrator; Selby adapts the tone of his authorial voice to something appropriate to the main character of that particular story, so that the impression is given that the character is stepping outside himself or herself to narrate his or her own story. In his “Afterword” Selby gave some examples of how this effect had been achieved:

“When Vinnie is the subject the language and rhythms reflect him with their harshness; and with Georgette the sounds and rhythms are sibilant, soft, feminine, a lot of alliteration, the images romantic.”

This ability to reproduce different tones of voice in this way shows him to have been a writer of considerable technical skill; his achievement becomes all the more remarkable when one considers that this was a first novel and that he had had little formal education.

The criticism is sometimes made that the book is “anti-gay”, but I do not think that is accurate. Attitudes to homosexuality in the fifties and sixties were much less liberal than they are today, and it struck me that Selby was not endorsing these illiberal attitudes but rather impliedly criticising them. Public hostility to male homosexuality meant that gay men could not simply be gay men; they were compelled to hide behind either a feminine persona as does Georgette (originally George) or an outward display of swaggering, exaggerated masculinity as does Harry, who is actually married, albeit unhappily. Neither character can be described as sympathetic: Georgette arouses pity rather than sympathy, which is not quite the same thing, and Harry is an unpleasant, deeply flawed, individual. Nevertheless, there is certainly a suggestion that at least some of the flaws in Harry’s personality- his aggression, his abuse of his wife, his uncompromising attitude at work- arise from his being forced to hide his true nature behind a façade.

Harry is the main character in the fifth, and longest, story in the book, which deals with a strike in a local factory. Selby draws a rather negative picture of the union and its activities, but in truth there was a lot to criticise in trade unionism during the fifties and sixties. Some of the abuses mentioned here were even more ingrained in Britain than in America. A movement which had originally been designed to promote working-class solidarity and the interests of the common man had become bogged down in a rules-for-rules-sake mentality and often served to divide the working class by setting union members against non-members. As employers would pass on increased labour costs to their customers in price rises, even successful industrial action could result in one man’s pay rise becoming another (often poorer) man’s increase in the cost of living. Selby is also critical of the employers’ position; the plant’s management despise Harry, rightly seeing his militancy as stemming from a desire for self-aggrandisement, but fail to realise that it is their own confrontational, hard-line attitudes which allow men like Harry to flourish.

Despite Selby’s skill as a writer, I would not describe “Last Exit to Brooklyn” as a favourite of mine, although the reason for this has nothing to do with those aspects of the book which made it so controversial on its release. Under British law at this period, “obscene” was not simply a synonym for “erotic” or “pornographic”. A book could only be condemned as “obscene” if the prosecution could prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that it had a tendency to “deprave and corrupt”- that is to say that the effect of reading it would be to make the average man or woman more likely not merely to think immoral thoughts but also to commit immoral acts. On the basis of this definition it would be difficult to think of a book less “obscene” than “Last Exit”. Selby certainly deals with vice, but he can hardly be accused of doing so in a way which would make a life of vice seem attractive to the average man or woman. To take an example Tralala, the oddly-named prostitute who is the title character of the fourth story, is about as far from the sentimental cliché of the “tart with a heart” as one can get. More like a “whore with a flaw”. Her story could almost be a cautionary story warning women of the dangers of prostitution, and men of the dangers of becoming involved with prostitutes.

My own criticism of the book would have more to do with what I saw as Selby’s bleak, almost misanthropic portrayal of working-class life in Brooklyn. An excessively pessimistic world-view can be just as unrealistic as an excessively optimistic one, and here the author offers us nothing but almost unrelieved pessimism. The world inhabited by his characters is not only violent, mean and sordid, it is also notably joyless. We never see anyone do anything for any motive other than a base one; we never see anyone who seems capable of decency, selflessness or generosity, and when someone is capable of love their live is normally wasted on an unworthy recipient, as is the case with Georgette and her infatuation with the vicious hoodlum Vinnie. And yet their self-absorption only serves to make them miserable; they seem as incapable of happiness as they do of any other positive emotion. The few exceptions, such as the womanising “cool cat” Abe, only seem able to achieve happiness at the expense of others.

An uncompromising look at the seamy side of life is not always an honest one if it gives us an incomplete view of humanity. And because vice is defined in opposition to virtue, just as light is defined as the absence of dark, any attempt to show us one without the other must necessarily be incomplete.
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