At the half-way mark and when fully finished, I want to make a few remarks on books I have been reading. When around fifty percent through, I want to tap into the interpretations and reviews of those before me, so I can see if my personal views are reflected within prior writings. When finished with the book I will make some brief statements on my thoughts and feelings about these books. The first book I will be working with in this series is the 1964 postmodern classic Last Exit to Brooklyn.
These days there are many collections of short stories that seek to create a hybrid of the novel and the story collection by focusing on a single character or location, or by trimming the narrative arc associated with novels through cutting up an underlying narrative into what might be called story-bits. Perhaps the earliest models of such a book would be Hamlin Garland’s Main-Traveled Roads or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but I have to say I would now judge Last Exit to Brooklyn to be the best example of this hybrid form I have read.
Sordid surroundings, no apostrophes, the thoughts of inferior people as imagined by their superior creator, odd paragraphing, no joy, sudden spates of capital letters, low diction and ugly rhythms, an oppressive sense of claustrophobia—all present and functioning vigorously.
The novel’s famously idiosyncratic prose – a crudely punctuated, phonetic vernacular – is cut through with a surprising intermittent lyricism, making it clear that Selby has some sympathy for his characters.
They are not even physically described in much detail — they are more like ghosts and shadows. It is their sin and immorality, rather than their corporeal beings, that seem to pervade the claustrophobic atmosphere, page after page after page.
When people are beaten up, they are not only kicked to a foaming, puking, bloody pulp, but the only reaction in evidence is someone’s gloating satisfaction.
But surprisingly, it feels life-affirming, as though that thing that makes them try is some basic life force that cannot be killed no matter how depraved an environment it lives in — the will to survive.
Sex – interchangeable with violence, serves for ego-gratification. A process of catharsis. A route to asserting superiority on the most basic animal level.
One feels in reading Last Exit to Brooklyn that Selby has artfully fitted style to character and situation, the unpretentious language being necessary for depicting the almost primal conditions in which the characters live. Eschewing conventional paragraphing, quoted dialogue, and most forms of punctuation, Selby’s style in Last Exit at its austere best even rises to the level of a kind of derelict poetry.