Hubert Selby Jr., the American writer best known for his controversial first novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, died in California on April 26, 2004 at the age of 75. In a sense, however, Selby had been on the brink of death for most of his life.
He battled drug and alcohol addiction through much of his life. (He was arrested for possession of heroin in 1967 and spent some time in jail.) His final years, though, were drug-free and he even refused morphine on his deathbed despite being in excruciating pain.
Selby was born in poverty in Brooklyn and dropped out of school at the age of 15 to work on the New York docks. Selby’s addictions and serious health problems began after he joined the Merchant Marine at the age of 19.
In a turn of events that sounds like something from one of his novels, Selby contracted tuberculosis from the cattle on board his first ship which were suffering from bovine tuberculosis.
He spent a year in hospital in Germany (where he was taken from his ship) and was treated with an experimental drug which worsened his condition. Doctors removed some of his ribs to remove part of his lungs. He was not expected to survive and was on a steady diet of painkillers, including morphine, leading to decades of addiction.
Back in New York, Selby married and had two children but was too Ill to work. He was thin and frail and often bedridden for the next 10 years. It was during this time that Selby first began to read seriously and to educate himself.
Doctors were still unsure if he would live for long. Selby said later that the precariousness of his life led to a revelation:
“I was sitting at home and had a profound experience. I experienced, in all of my Being, that someday I was going to die, and it wouldn’t be like it had been happening, almost dying but somehow staying alive, but I would just die! And two things would happen right before I died: I would regret my entire life; I would want to live it over again. This terrified me. The thought that I would live my entire life, look at it and realize I blew it forced me to do something with my life.”
Selby decided that since he couldn’t do any physical work and had had many life experiences he would try his hand at writing fiction. (“I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer,” he figured.)
He published several short stories about life among prostitutes, drug addicts and drag queens in Brooklyn and gathered them together into his first book Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1964. His writing is stream of consciousness style with minimal punctuation and run on words — like “gotim” for got him and “couplea” for couple of you – that imitate Brooklyn speech.
The drug use, violence, homosexuality, transvestites and a gang rape scene also meant that the book faced legal difficulties, but it is now considered one of the most important mid-century American novels.
Selby published five more novels and moved to California with his third wife where the climate was better for his health, which remained uncertain for the rest of his life. Finally, Selby conquered his addictions and spent the last 20 years of his life as a professor of creative writing at The University of Southern California.