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.