I’m trying very hard to complete the David Bowie reading challenge that I discovered on the fabulous Scatterbooker blog. Many of the books on the list are classics that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ is one of those.
Described by various reviewers as hellish and obscene, Last Exit to Brooklyn tells the stories of New Yorkers who at every turn confront the worst excesses in human nature. Yet there are moments of exquisite tenderness in these troubled lives. Georgette, the transvestite who falls in love with a callous hoodlum; Tralala, the conniving prostitute who plumbs the depths of sexual degradation; and Harry, the strike leader who hides his true desires behind a boorish masculinity, are unforgettable creations. Last Exit to Brooklyn was banned by British courts in 1967, a decision that was reversed the following year with the help of a number of writers and critics including Anthony Burgess and Frank Kermode.
This is an incredibly difficult book to read. The writing style in itself is very difficult to get to grips with. No speech marks, no commas, no apostrophes. But once you get used to that, there is a great depth and a great skill to Selby’s writing. It becomes a bit of a rollercoaster, or perhaps a car crash. It’s gruesome and nasty and unsettling in turns, but the narrative is written in such a way that it’s impossible to look away.
The narrative doesn’t follow the conventions of a novel. There’s no one story arc but rather a series of narratives concerning different characters, some connected, all set in the streets of Brooklyn in the 1950s. The book was released in 1964, and it shows. The depictions of racism, misogyny and homophobia and the language used are certainly shocking, at least to this modern reader. But this is the epitome of gritty realism. Unfortunately, you can well imagine these events happening, these attitudes being real.
It’s hard to like the characters, any of them. But you do feel a certain amount of sympathy; they’re trapped in their grim lives, lives that are diminished through violence and hate. You can see how these characters become who they are, how they are capable of what they do.
There are some truly horrifying moments in this book; I have to admit that there are some things I wish I hadn’t read. But am I glad I read it? Definitely. Selby has achieved something rare here. Would I recommend it? I’m not sure. You’ll need a strong stomach. There are no happy endings, no escapism, absolutely no joy.