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Hubert Selby Jr. Dies at 75; Wrote <I>Last Exit to Brooklyn</I>

Hubert Selby Jr. Dies at 75; Wrote Last Exit to Brooklyn

Anthony DePalma, NY Times, April 27, 2004

Hubert Selby Jr., the Brooklyn-born ex-merchant mariner who turned to drugs and to writing after cheating death and created a lasting vision of urban hell in his novel "Last Exit to Brooklyn," died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 75.The cause was chronic pulmonary disease, said his son, Bill Selby, who added that his father's death was the long-term consequence of the tuberculosis he had contracted while at sea during World War II.

Mr. Selby had no formal training, and disdained the prim order of punctuation and plot. His writing was spare and direct. But what most marked his work was the stark despair and loneliness he described in such shocking terms that some of his work was blocked for a time in the United States, and later England, as obscene.

He said he did not understand what the fuss was about.

"The events that take place are the way people are," he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1988, describing the gang rapes, brutal beatings and countless perversions described in "Last Exit." "These are not literary characters; these are real people. I knew these people. How can anybody look inside themselves and be surprised at the hatred and violence in the world? It's inside all of us."

"Tralala," one of the stories that make up the book, was the subject of an obscenity trial involving The Provincetown Review, which published it in 1961. And when "Last Exit," which consists of "Tralala" and five other loosely connected stories, was published in England in 1966, a jury found it to be obscene and fined its publisher.

The novel describes the seedy underbelly of the Red Hook waterfront neighborhood in the Brooklyn of the 1950's, which is depicted as a wasteland prowled by gangs, whores and transvestites. When it was published by Grove Press in 1964, its repulsive language and blast-furnace images made the novel difficult either to accept or reject.

"This is a brutal book — shocking, exhausting, depressing," wrote Eliot Fremont-Smith in the first review of the book in The Times. Yet, despite the gutter language and obscene grunts of the dark characters in the novel, Mr. Fremont-Smith said that the book could not be easily dismissed. "The profound depression it causes — once one starts seriously to read it — is a measure of an authentic power which carries through and beyond revulsion," he wrote. "Just who should be asked to undergo this experience is another matter."

Hubert Selby Jr. was born on July 27, 1928, in Brooklyn, the son of Adalin and Hubert Selby Sr., a coal miner from Kentucky who served in the merchant marine for several years until his son was born. During World War II the senior Mr. Selby returned to the merchant marine. His son, though underage, convinced the recruiters he was old enough to join as well. While at sea he developed tuberculosis. After going through radical surgery and more than a year of hospitalization, he was given no chance of recovery.

He did recover, but was hooked on the morphine he had received during his hospitalization. He started drinking. With no other prospects, he decided to try writing, although he once said he had never read anything until he was an adult. While he wrote the stories that went into Last Exit to Brooklyn he worked for a time as an insurance analyst in Manhattan.

Before the book was published in 1964, Mr. Selby's writing had earned him less than $100. Despite its bleakness, the book's underlying message of redemption through self-destruction caught on in a United States about to enter the radical 1960's.

Mr. Selby overcame his addictions and moved to the West Coast, where he wrote several other books, including The Room (1971) The Demon (1976), and The Willow Tree (1998). In 1989 Last Exit was made into a film by the German director Uli Edel.

Hubert Selby Jr. was married three times, most recently in 1969 to Suzanne Victoria Selby, who survives him, along with four children: Claudia Adams of Marrow Bone, Ky.; Kyle, of Yorktown, N.Y.; Rachel Kuehn of Corona, Calif.; and Bill, of Loma Linda, Calif.

At the time of his death, Mr. Selby, a high school dropout, taught a graduate writing class at the University of Southern California. His son Bill Selby said he was also working on a novel and a screenplay.