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From the Shadows, a Legend Reappears : Mainstream Recognition Catches Up With 'Last Exit to Brooklyn' Author Selby Once Again

March 11, 1988|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

No one who has read "Last Exit to Brooklyn" can easily forget Georgette, the "hip queer" whose penchant for a cruel ex-con culminates in drug-fueled abasement, or Tralala, the greedy prostitute who dies as brutally as she lived.

First published in 1964, "Last Exit" exploded onto the American psyche like a 10-megaton nuclear bomb and set off a searing controversy among critics, who called it an extraordinary literary achievement while praising and panning its dark vision and violent prose.

The book sold 750,000 copies, was translated into a dozen languages, including Finnish, Japanese and Serbo-Croatian, and, at different times, directors Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick hoped to bring it to the screen.

But their plans fizzled and so, over time, did author Hubert Selby Jr.'s newly won fame.

Drugs and Drink

Flush with money and celebrity, he plunged headfirst into a dark oblivion of alcoholism and drug addiction rivaling that of his most tortured characters.

Today, the 59-year-old writer lives alone, scratching out a meager existence from teaching part time and spinning a new novel in his one-bedroom West Hollywood apartment.

But mainstream recognition is catching up with him once again.

Almost a quarter century after it was first published, "Last Exit" is slouching toward celluloid thanks to West German producer Bernd Eichinger, who calls Selby's novel "an enormous piece of literature; the most powerful, powerful book I have read from a living author."

The producer, whose credits include Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" and "The Never Ending Story," says the photo-realist imagery of "Last Exit" haunted him for 20 years, but that until recently, he lacked the credits and financial backing to tackle such a complex, controversial film. He plans to film "Last Exit" in New York this summer.

Other events are also conspiring to propel Selby back into the public eye.

Jean-Jacques Beineix, who directed the movies "Diva" and "Betty Blue," has optioned his 1976 novel "The Demon." Grove Press, the literary-minded house that first published Selby--as well as highly charged works by Jean Genet, D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller--plans to re-release "Last Exit" this year. And Thunder's Mouth Press, a small, quirky New York publisher, in May will reissue Selby's 1978 novel, "Requiem For A Dream."

Along with all that, Selby has linked up with some young, avant-garde writers who see him as a kindred spirit, one whose alienated, Angst -ridden prose echoes their own.

Entranced by his message, Lydia Lunch, the New York writer/performer and Henry Rollins, formerly of the Los Angeles hard-core band Black Flag, invited Selby to read with them at recent spoken-word performances in Hollywood and San Francisco.

On stage at Hollywood's Lhasa Club and The Roxy, it is eerie to watch the literary flame pass between performers separated by generations but alike in soul. Time seems to fold back onto itself as Selby reads his finger-popping tales forged in the hipster jazz tradition to audiences who weren't even born when "Last Exit" first hit the street.

The crowds listen in spellbound silence while Rollins, whose intensity evokes images of a youthful, more centered Selby, calls the author his inspiration and all-time hero.

"He recombines your DNA . . . . After I read 'Requiem,' I wanted to stop writing," Rollins says.

In person, Selby--whom friends call by his childhood nickname "Cubby"--is a tall, alarmingly frail man whose lifelong battle with private demons is etched onto a face that's kind and intelligent.

There is an ethereal quality about him, as if his long--and mostly self-imposed--suffering had purged him of flesh and ego until what remained was more spirit than body. His eyes--two incandescent blue orbs--threaten to overtake his gaunt face.

Especially when he talks about writing. The cool detachment of minimalism has no place in his heart.

"What I attempt to do is put the reader through an emotional experience. I want them to experience the pain. If I can shake them up, I can effect some change," Selby says.

"So many people think that the purpose of an artist is to take something ugly and make it pretty. Well, the majority of people on this Earth scratch to stay alive and they have to watch their kids die a little bit every day from starvation. That's not genteel. It's not lunch at '21.' But it's reality."

Not much remains of the bristling young man who wrote in such relentless, gut-wrenching detail about a vicious, loveless, godless world. Time has melted much of the corrosive anger, the silent, screaming anguish, the self-destructive impulses that once sent him reeling into heroin addiction and alcoholism.

"I started dying 36 hours before I was born," Selby says. "I was never comfortable in my own body. I was always afraid. I couldn't find a way to live."

So he courted death instead.

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