Last Exit to Brooklyn

Last Exit to Brooklyn
Hubert Selby Jr.
Difficulty: Medium
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Description:

A classic of postwar American literature, Last Exit to Brooklyn created shock waves upon its release in 1964 with its raw, vibrant language and startling revelations of New York City’s underbelly.  The prostitutes, drunks, addicts, and johns of Selby’s Brooklyn are fierce and lonely creatures, desperately searching for a moment of transcendence amidst the decay and brutality of the waterfront—though none have any real hope of escape. Last Exit to Brooklyn offers a disturbing yet hauntingly sensitive portrayal of American life, and nearly fifty years after publication, it stands as a crucial and masterful work of modern fiction.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is a collection of stories about New York’s lowest, often invisible social classes. The lives of addicts, prostitutes, queers, transvestites, all the folk who make up the “underbelly” of Brooklyn are savage and hopeless, and Selby Jr. pulls no punches in his depiction of them. An early story in the collection (and perhaps the best known), “The Queen is Dead,” follows crossdressing Benzedrine addict Georgette on her quest to seduce the love of her life, the ex-con Vinnie, while avoiding her abusive family but ultimately overdosing on morphine. And that’s probably the cheeriest part, it’s all downhill from there. Miserable people doing terrible things, society’s outcasts fighting bitterly for scraps of love and happiness. But the worst part? For many, these stories reflect reality, and that’s why Last Exit to Brooklyn became an instant and enduring classic of American fiction.

As awful as the subject matter is, I hesitate to label this book as transgressive fiction because Selby Jr. does not glory in its depravity. His descriptions of terrible acts are uncomfortably detailed, but not gratuitously so, and he neither commends nor condemns their perpetrators. There’s a journalistic tone to his writing, one which suggests that he is simply reporting the facts as he sees them. This effect is enhanced by the stripped down nature of his prose: conversational, workmanlike, and lacking in punctuation, closely mirroring the speech patterns of his characters. Compare this to well-known transgressive works like Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. These works delight in their obscenity and insist that such obscenities contain unique and important knowledge of the human experience. It is not the depiction of terrible acts in these books which readers find so unconscionable, but the implicit approval of those acts expressed through the authors’ decision to make them their subjects. Last Exit to Brooklyn avoids this dynamic entirely; it’s not transgressive, it’s just sad. So, why read such a miserable book? Well, the awful truth is that this is part of our history, and for some it’s part of our present too. Homosexuality and the American underworld go hand in hand, they always have. Things might be better now, but remember that our new privileges are contingent upon our assimilation into the same culture which forced us and others down into the underworld in the first place. Last Exit to Brooklyn is a dark reminder of this fact, but an important one too. I don’t recommend it because it will make you happy (it won’t), but because I think it teaches an important lesson. 

The Last of the Wine

The Last of the Wine
Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
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Description:

Alexias is a young aristocrat living during the end of Athens’s Golden Age. Prized for his beauty and athletic prowess, Alexias studies under Sokrates with his closest friend, Lysis. Together, the young men come of age in an Athens on the verge of great upheaval. They attend the Olympics, partake in symposia, fight on the battlefields of the Peloponnesian War, and fall in love.

The first of Mary Renault’s celebrated historical novels of ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine follows Alexias and Lysis into adulthood, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, the Thirty Tyrants take hold of the city, and the lives of both men are changed forever. Through their friendship, Renault opens a vista onto ancient Greek life, uncovering its vibrancy, culture, and political strife, and offers an unforgettable story of love, honor, loyalty, and the remarkable bond between two men.

I feel a bit under-qualified to speak about Mary Renault’s historical fiction. I’m not a classicist, and pretty much all of my knowledge of that period is drawn from popular works like The Odyssey or Symposium, so I really have no idea how historically accurate her work is. After thinking about it a bit, I decided it doesn’t really matter whether it’s accurate or not. The Last of the Wine’s value comes from its rich representation of an alternative culture, not from some intrinsic truthfulness. Historical fiction author Hilary Mantel expresses this in much more eloquent terms:

[Mary Renault] does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.

To say that Renault’s Grecians are not like us might seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate just how alien they can seem at times. It’s not like a fantasy novel, where a fictional civilization still operates on modern western principles, Alexias and Lysis truly live by laws and values that today seem incredibly foreign to us (and even morally dubious). Sometimes this manifests itself in unexpected ways, such as Alexias’ father advising him on choosing an older male lover when he’s 16, or the practice of exposing infants when the child is undesirable, either because it is female or because the family is too poor. We know these things to be historical facts, but it’s unusual to see them performed without any of the usual reflexive commentary by our own culture.

I found it to be both a humbling and comforting experience to read. Humbling, because, more than sci-fi or fantasy, it caused me to reflect on my own culture and to remember that the way we are is not the way we have always been, and is not the way we always need to be. Comforting, for about the same reason. It was an exciting experience to watch Alexias, at 16, trotting around like a Victorian debutante, attracting the gaze of half the men in the city. I’m not saying that Greek pederasty is a key component of an ideal society, but it was something different. A different way of thinking about intimacy, sexuality, and society that helped expand my views of my own culture.

The Charioteer

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The Charioteer
by Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
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Though she’s better know for her rigorously historical fiction about Alexander the Great, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer was a very significant novel for the 1950’s. Historical fiction affords the author plausible deniability for their support of homosexuality, but The Charioteer was contemporary fiction, and one of a very, very small handful at the time positively depicting homosexual love.

Laurie Odell is a patient at an English veterans hospital recovering from an injury sustained at Dunkirk during WWII. He shortly becomes fast friends with Andrew, one of the orderlies and a conscientious objector, and soon their friendship evolves into something more. But Ralph, an old friend of Laurie’s from school, reappears and introduces him to a community of established, jaded gay men, and Laurie must choose between the physical and practical pleasures of Ralph’s world and the innocent and idyllic love of Andrew’s.

I’ve come to think of Renault’s The Charioteer as the gay Pride and Prejudice, not because the plots are particularly similar, but because she and Austen both approach romance with an earnest, honest, and literary pen. There is no love at first sight or perfect partner because loving another person is very difficult, and Renault is dedicated to exploring that process. It’s a slow burn, both for the plot and their relationships. A modern American reader might find some of the language or dialogue to be a little perplexing, though an English one will likely feel more comfortable.

Fun fact: Renault takes her title from Plato’s famous Chariot Allegory presented in the Phaedrus (which will someday appear on this blog). In it, Plato imagines a charioteer whose vehicle is drawn by two winged horses, one of which is noble and beautiful while the other is the opposite in every way, and their competing personalities make piloting the chariot very challenging. The first horse represents rational, positive passions such as morality, whereas the second symbolizes irrational ones like appetite or lust, and the charioteer must control both in order to guide the soul to truth.