Hubert Selby, Jr.

Hubert Selby, Jr.

Hubert Selby, Jr. (July 23, 1928April 26, 2004) was a 20th century American writer. His best-known novels are "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1964) and "Requiem for a Dream" (1978). Both novels were later adapted into films.


Early life

Hubert Selby Sr. was a merchant seaman and a former coal miner from Kentucky. He and his wife Adalin settled in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn. Hubert Selby Jr. was born in 1928, in Brooklyn, New York City. He attended various New York state schools, including Stuyvesant High School. His childhood nickname, "Cubby", stuck with him his entire life.

In 1943, Hubert Sr. returned to the United States Merchant Marines. His son, Hubert Jr., dropped out of school, and at the age of fifteen was able to persuade the recruiters to allow him to join the merchant marines. The young Selby quickly met with a number of misfortunes.

In 1947, while at sea, Selby was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis. The doctors predicted that he would live less than a year. He was taken off the ship in Bremen, Germany, and sent back to America. For the next three and a half years, Selby was in and out of the Marine Hospital in New York for treatment.

Selby went through an experimental drug treatment, streptomycin, that later caused some severe complications. During an operation, surgeons removed several of Selby's ribs in order to reach his lungs. [In the obituary, Selby's wife, Suzanne Selby, states that during the treatment the doctors removed a whole lung along with eleven ribs.] One of the lungs collapsed, and the doctors removed part of the other. The surgery saved Selby's life, but left him with a year-long recuperation and chronic pulmonary problems for the rest of his life. The medical treatments also marked the beginning of Selby's dependence on painkillers and heroin, an addiction that lasted for decades.

Becoming a writer

With no qualifications, no work experience aside from the merchant marines, and his poor health, Selby had trouble landing a job. He spent most of the time at home, raising his daughter while his wife worked in a department store.

For the next ten years, Selby remained bedridden and was frequently hospitalized with a variety of lung-related ailments. The doctors continued to issue bleak prognoses on Selby's life, telling him repeatedly that he could not possibly survive because he "just didn't have enough lung capacity". A childhood friend, writer Gilbert Sorrentino, [Selby dedicated his first work, "Last Exit to Brooklyn", to Gilbert Sorrentino, with whom he grew up in Brooklyn.] encouraged Selby to spend his time on fiction. Unable to make a living due to health concerns, Selby decided, "I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer."

Selby traced his desire to write to a sudden realization. He wrote:

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.

With no formal training, Selby used his raw language to narrate the bleak and violent world that was part of his youth. He stated, "I write, in part, by ear. I hear, as well as feel and see, what I am writing. I have always been enamoured with the music of the speech in New York." [cite web | title=Guardian Unlimited Film : Features : Hubert Selby Jr and near-death experience | url=,4120,421047,00.html | accessdate=2005-12-23 ] In style, Selby also differed from other writers. He was not concerned with proper grammar, punctuation, or diction, although Selby's work is internally consistent; he uses the same unorthodox techniques in most of his works. He indented his paragraphs with alternating lengths, often by simply dropping down one line when he was finished with a paragraph. Like Jack Kerouac's "spontaneous prose", Selby's writing was often completed in a fast, stream of consciousness style, and to facilitate this he replaced his apostrophes with forward slashes "/" due to their closer proximity on his typewriter, thus allowing uninterrupted typing. He did not use quotation marks, and his dialogue might consist of a complete paragraph, with no denotion among alternating speakers. His prose was stripped down, bare and blunt.

His experience with longshoremen, the homeless, thugs, pimps, transvestites, prostitutes, queers, addicts and the overall poverty-stricken community, is best expressed in his most praised work, "Last Exit to Brooklyn".

Early works

Selby started working on his first short story, "The Queen Is Dead", in 1958. At the time, Selby had a succession of day jobs, but he continued to work on his fiction every night after his day work as a secretary, a gas station attendant, and a freelance copywriter. The short story evolved slowly for the next six years before it saw the light of publication.

In 1961, one of Selby's short stories, "Tralala", was published in a literary journal, "The Provincetown Review". It also appeared in "Black Mountain Review" and "New Directions". With his unstructured style and coarse descriptions, Selby examined the seedy life (ridden with violence, theft and mediocre con-artistry) and the gang rape of a prostitute. He quickly drew negative attention from a number of critics. The editor was arrested for selling pornographic literature to a minor. The publication was used as evidence in an obscenity trial, but the case was later dismissed on appeal.

As Selby continued to work on his writing, Amiri Baraka, Selby's long-time friend, encouraged Selby to contact Sterling Lord, who at the time was Jack Kerouac's agent. In 1964, "Tralala", "The Queen is Dead" and four other loosely linked short stories appeared in Selby's first novel, "Last Exit to Brooklyn". The novel was accepted and published by Grove Press, which had already released works by William S. Burroughs.

The novel was praised by many, including Allen Ginsberg, who predicted that it would "explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years". But as with any controversial work, not everyone was happy. Because of the detailed depictions of homosexuality, drug addiction, gang rape, and other human brutality and cruelty in the novel, it was prosecuted for obscenity in Great Britain in 1967. Anthony Burgess was among a number of writers who appeared as witnesses in defence of the novel. The all-male jury's conviction was later reversed on appeal. The novel was successfully banned in Italy. (For more details on the British trial of "Last Exit to Brooklyn" see the entry Last Exit to Brooklyn Trial.)

In 1967, Selby moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in an attempt to escape his addictions. That same year, Selby met his future wife, Suzanne, at a bar in West Hollywood. The couple moved in together two days after they met, and married in 1969. For the next decade, they traveled back and forth between their home in Southern California and East Coast, settling down permanently in the Los Angeles area in 1983.

Even though all his work was written while he was sober, Selby continued to battle a drug addiction. In 1967 his heroin addiction eventually landed him in Los Angeles county jail, where he spent two months for possession of heroin. After his release from jail, he kicked the habit and stayed clean of drugs and alcohol until his death. He even refused morphine on his deathbed, although he was in pain.

Life after "Last Exit to Brooklyn"

In 1971, Selby published his second novel, "The Room". The novel received positive reviews. "The Room" was about a criminally insane man locked up in one room in a prison who reminisces about his disturbing past. Selby himself described "The Room" as "the most disturbing book ever written", and he noted that he could not read it for decades after writing it.

Selby continued to write short fiction, screenplays and teleplays at his apartment in West Hollywood. His work appeared in many journals, including "Yugen", "Black Mountain Review", "Evergreen Review", "Provincetown Review", "Kulchur", "New Directions Annual", "Swank" and "Open City". For the last 20 years of his life, Selby taught creative writing as an adjunct professor in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California. Selby often wryly noted that "The New York Times" would not review his books when they were published, but he predicted that they'd print his obituary.

His 1978 novel "Requiem for a Dream" was made into a movie, released in 2000. Selby himself had a small role as a prison guard.

In the 1980s, Selby made the acquaintance of rock singer Henry Rollins, who had long admired Selby's works and publicly championed them. Rollins not only helped broaden Selby's readership, but also arranged recording sessions and reading tours for Selby. Rollins issued original recordings through his own 2.13.61 publications, and distributed Selby's other works.

During the last years of his life, Selby suffered from depression and fits of rage, but was always a caring father and grandfather. The last month of his life Selby spent in and out of the hospital. He died in Highland Park, Los Angeles, California on April 26, 2004 of chronic obstructive pulmonary lung disease. Selby was survived by his wife of 35 years, Suzanne; four children and 11 grandchildren. [Selby was married three times and had four children.]



(in chronological order)
* "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (novel, 1964)
* "The Room" (novel, 1971)
* "The Demon" (novel, 1976) [The film rights to "The Demon" have been purchased by director Jean-Jacques Beineix]
* "Requiem for a Dream" (novel, 1978)
* "Song of the Silent Snow" (short stories, 1986) ["Song of the Silent Snow" is a collection of fifteen stories spanning more than two decades of writing.]
* "The Willow Tree" (novel, 1998)
* "Waiting Period" (novel, 2002)

Spoken word

(in chronological order)
* "Our Fathers Who Aren't in Heaven" - Compilation by Henry Rollins. 2xCD set (1990)
* "Live in Europe 1989" - Spoken word with Henry Rollins. CD. (1995)
* "Blue Eyes And Exit Wounds" - Spoken word with Nick Tosches. CD. (1998)


(in chronological order)
* "Jour et Nuit" - Screenwriter. France / Switzerland (1986)
* "Last Exit to Brooklyn" - Writer and actor (taxi driver). USA / Germany (1989) [Film "Last Exit to Brooklyn". Directed by Uli Edel. Screenplay by Desmond Nakano. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Burt Young and Jerry Orbach. Selby has a cameo appearance in the film as a taxi driver.]
* "Scotch and Milk" - Actor (Cubby). USA (1998)
* "Requiem for a Dream" - Screenwriter and actor (prison guard). USA (2000) [Film "Requiem for a Dream". Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Hubert Selby, Jr. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans. Selby has a cameo appearance in the film as a "Laughing Guard".]
* "Fear X" - Screenwriter. Denmark / UK / Canada (2003)


(in chronological order)
* "Memories, Dreams & Addictions." Interview with Ellen Burstyn. Special feature on "Requiem for a Dream"- Director's Cut DVD release. (2001)
* "Hubert Selby, Jr.: 2 Ou 3 Choses..." (A Couple of Things About Hubert Selby, Jr.) Documentary film by Ludovic Cantais, France (2000)
* "" Documentary film. (2005) [The title of this documentary is taken from page 103 of Selby's novel "The Demon". The slash is included in Selby's typography.]


At least one work-in-progress remained unfinished and unpublished at the time of Selby's death: "The Seeds of Pain and the Seeds of Love". Excerpts from this work are heard on the "Live in Europe 1989" CD.


Quotes by Selby

*Sometimes we have the absolute certainty that there's something inside us that's so hideous and monstrous that if we ever search it out we won't be able to stand looking at it. But it's when we're willing to come face to face with that demon that we face the angel.
*Being an artist doesn't take much, just everything you got. Which means, of course, that as the process is giving you life, it is also bringing you closer to death. But it's no big deal. They are one and the same and cannot be avoided or denied. So when I totally embrace this process, this life/death, and abandon myself to it, I transcend all this meaningless gibberish and hang out with the gods. It seems to me that that is worth the price of admission.

Quotes about Selby and his works

*His art is his ability to humanize the seemingly inhuman, and by extension to humanize the reader. - Richard Price
*To understand Selby's work is to understand the anguish of America - "New York Times".
* ["Last Exit to Brooklyn"] was a seminal piece of work. It broke so many traditions. [. . . ] . [Selby was] one of the last of that generation, of some of the greatest writers in this country. - Jim Ragan, head of the master's of professional writing program at the USC.
* [Selby] had the extraordinary capability of using language that is not normally thought of as a literary language, to make literature out of it. - Gilbert Sorrentino, novelist and childhood friend.
* [When writing, Selby] always left one line partially unfinished at night to have a place to start the next morning. - Suzanne Selby, wife.
*What Moby Dick was to Melville's century, Last Exit to Brooklyn is to ours, and between the two, Selby's is the better book. If that be called heresy, know that it be called so only by those of the same dead mind as they who allowed Melville to die unknown. - Nick Tosches
*When college came around I wasn't very prepared. I hit the library and tried to learn. But Selby fucked everything up. From sentence one I was done, and so were my finals. - Darren Aronofsky, director of the film version of "Requiem for a Dream"



* Selby's first work, "The Queen Is Dead" (appearing as a chapter in "Last Exit"), inspired the name of an album by Manchester pop group The Smiths. It became their most highly regarded LP.
* In the book "Was This Man a Genius?" by Julie Hecht, Andy Kaufman is quoted saying that his favourite book is "The Demon" by Hubert Selby (page 159).


* [] Official website of Hubert Selby, Jr. and Nick Tosches. Accessed June 15, 2005.
* [ Encyclopædia Britannica] . Encyclopædia Britannica. Selby, Hubert, Jr. Accessed June 14, 2005.
* [] . Hubert Selby, Jr. Biography. Accessed June 14, 2005.
* [ Obituary of Hubert Selby, Jr.] Ryan Pearson, Associated Press. April 26, 2004. Accessed June 15, 2005.
* [ IMDb] . Internet Movie Database. Hubert Selby Jr. filmography. Accessed June 15, 2005.
* [ Why I Continue To Write] . Thirty-five years after Last Exit to Brooklyn. Hubert Selby Jr. LA Weekly. February 26 - March 4, 1999. Accessed June 15, 2005.

External links

* [ Interview with Hubert Selby, Jr.] NPR, April 28, 2004. (This interview was originally broadcast on May 4, 1990.)
* [ "HUBERT SELBY JR: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow"] (2005) Documentary on Hubert Selby, Jr.
* [ Defining The Sacred] Hubert Selby, Jr. on Spirituality, the Creative Will, & Love. Interview by Robert Courteau. Rain Taxi. Winter 1999/2000.
* [ Interview with Spike Magazine]
* [ Dark Angel: Remembering Hubert Selby Jr., by Jerry Stahl] (L.A. Weekly, Thursday, May 6, 2004); Accessed July 11, 2006

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  • Hubert Selby Jr. — Hubert Selby Hubert Selby, Jr. (23 juillet 1928 – 26 avril 2004) est un auteur américain. Né à Brooklyn, Selby quitte l école à l âge de 15 ans pour s engager dans la marine marchande. Affaibli physiquement par la tuberculose …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Hubert Selby — Jr. (* 23. Juli 1928 in Brooklyn, New York; † 26. April 2004 in Los Angeles) war ein US amerikanischer Schriftsteller. Berühmt wurde er vor allem durch seinen Roman Letzte Ausfahrt Brooklyn. Selby arbeitete auch als Drehbuchautor sowie in… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Hubert Selby — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Selby (homonymie). Hubert Selby, Jr. (23 juillet 1928 – 26 avril 2004) est un auteur américain. Biographie Né à Brooklyn, Selby quitte l école à l âge de 15 ans pour s engager dans la marine… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Hubert Selby Jr — ➡ Selby * * * …   Universalium

  • Hubert Selby junior — Hubert Selby Hubert Selby, Jr. (23 juillet 1928 – 26 avril 2004) est un auteur américain. Né à Brooklyn, Selby quitte l école à l âge de 15 ans pour s engager dans la marine marchande. Affaibli physiquement par la tuberculose …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Selby (disambiguation) — Selby often refers to places, people, or fiction:PlacenamesUnited Kingdom*Selby, a town in Yorkshire *Selby (district), a local government district of North Yorkshire *Selby (UK Parliament constituency), a constituency represented in the House of …   Wikipedia

  • Selby (Begriffsklärung) — Selby ist der Name folgender Orte: Selby, Stadt in North Yorkshire, England Selby (District), District in North Yorkshire, England Selby (South Dakota), USA Selby (Gauteng), Südafrika Selby ist der Familienname folgender Personen: Andrew Selby (* …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Selby (homonymie) — Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom. Selby est un terme pouvant désigner: Sommaire 1 Patronyme 2 Toponyme …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Selby, Hubert, Jr. — ▪ 2005 “Cubby”        American writer (b. July 23, 1928, Brooklyn, N.Y. d. April 26, 2004, Los Angeles, Calif.), showcased the dark underside of American urban life in his debut novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964). Selby lacked formal training as …   Universalium

  • Selby — I Selby   [ selbɪ], Stadt in der County North Yorkshire, Nordengland, am Ouse, 15 300 Einwohner; Kohlenbergbau (seit 1983).   Stadtbild:   Die Klosterkirche, seit 1100 an der Stelle eines Vorgängerbaues von 1056 errichtet (Chor 1280 1340), wurde… …   Universal-Lexikon