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. 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.
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, 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Interview: Gilbert Sorrentino discusses his friend, author Hubert Selby, Jr., who died yesterday at the age of 75
Apr 27, 2004; ROBERT SIEGEL All Things Considered (NPR) 04-27-2004 Interview: Gilbert Sorrentino discusses his friend, author Hubert Selby,...