Any list of famous writers from Brooklyn would fill a decent sized phone book. And any list of books set in Brooklyn would be almost as large. I’ve read plenty of both but there are many more I’ve missed. So, the posts I’ll be making about Brooklyn books will be far from a definitive list. Think of them as tips from your friendly Brooklyn librarian.
It would be remiss of me not to begin with the very first “Brooklyn” book I ever read. (Hell, it was the very first book I ever read cover-to-cover!) And, I’ve reread it many times since – most recently last Tuesday. In fact, it’s the overdue book mentioned above – overdue for over 60 years! If you haven’t read it then all I can say is, “I pity you!”
“Psssst, hey kid, ya wanna read a really doity book?”
As you drive into Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge a large sign looms up at you. It screams, “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” If a driver doesn’t take that exit they are taken onto the Gowanus Expressway and thence over the neighborhood of Sunset Park where the spectacularly downbeat novel Last Exit to Brooklyn is set. In the 1950s, the period of the novel, that sign should have screamed, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
In the 50s, the waterfront of Sunset Park was a land of perpetual night – a slum rotting in fetid shadow beneath the elevated Gowanus Expressway. The Mafia had killed the docks, Robert Moses had killed Sunset Park by cutting it in two with his hideous highway and the Dodgers had killed Brooklyn by moving to L.A.
Hubert Selby Jr. knew this coz he was a Brooklyn boy born right next door to Sunset Park in Bay Ridge.
Selby’s book consists of inter-locking tales of losers, junkies, sadists, pimps, hookers and trannies who fight for scraps in a nightmare world of gangs and gang-bangs.
I was raised in the 1950s just a few blocks away from this world. I even swam in the public pool there. But, I knew better than to venture into the Terra Incognita below the highway. Many years later, I met a Yorkshireman who had lived in a sleaze-bag hotel in Sunset Park during WW2. He was outfitting ships to British standards that had been built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He told me that the whole area was full of crap games, gyp-joints and whorehouses all making a fortune from the servicemen and dock workers.
In the 1980s, I would spend pointless, penniless weekends meandering around Brooklyn by bike. I was drawn to the derelict and rotting factories of Industry City that lined the waterfront in Sunset Park. I thought, “Damn, this would make a great film set.” And, that’s exactly where, a few years later, much of the movie of Last Exit to Brooklyn was filmed.
That film is good but doesn’t capture the daring style and outrageous vitality of Selby’s prose. Plus, by 1989, much of the shock value of his book’s subject matter had been lost. But, when it was first published in 1964, Last Exit to Brooklyn was an outrage and banned in several countries. I haven’t been impressed by Selby’s other work but anyone interested in the lower depths of Brooklyn life and the heights of “outsider” American literature should read Last Exit to Brooklyn.
In 1965, I read it as a 15-year-old while working as a messenger in Times Square. The guy who sold it to me could have been arrested. I made sure that its instantly recognizable cover was always visible sticking out of my back pocket as I made deliveries. And, I made sure that same cover was visible as I read Last Exit to Brooklyn on the subway. I didn’t live in a artist’s garret in Greenwich Village but it was fun to pretend that I did.