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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

Miracles Among Horrors of Streets

THE WILLOW TREE by Hubert Selby Jr.; Marion Boyars $25.95, 288 pages

July 27, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is a testimony to the power of image and language that Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Last Exit to Brooklyn" from 1964 is still one of the most discomfiting books in the English language. A collection of portraits of the gangs and hookers and transvestites of Brooklyn, "Last Exit" has an ability to match viciousness with poetry that places it on the same shelf as De Sade's "Justine" and certain back issues of the National Enquirer.

In his latest novel, "The Willow Tree," his first in 20 years, Selby moves from Brooklyn to the Bronx. Bobby is a fatherless 13-year-old black youth, living in a rat-infested tenement with his mother and two younger brothers. Maria is his Latina girlfriend. This being the South Bronx and the writer being Selby, it takes only four pages for the lyricism of young love to give way to horror--three Puerto Rican kids chain-whip Bobby, while a third burns Maria's face past recognition with liquid lye.

In pain and depression, Maria jumps out her hospital window. Bobby is luckier. He is rescued from his bruises by a survivor of an earlier horror. Moishe lives in a part of the South Bronx even more desolate than Bobby's 'hood. "As always, the area reminded Moishe of his final years in Europe when it seemed like the entire continent was rubble. . . . But here the rubble was never cleared away, just added to and piled on by the survivors in little, impotent acts of defiance. . . ."

Before the war, Moishe had been a good German named Werner, doing very well in a good German plumbing and electrical business, until one day he was denounced by his own business partner as a Jew. Separated from his wife and son, Moishe was sent to a concentration camp, where he survived the cruelty of the Nazis, while slowly killing himself with the hatred he felt for his partner and the hatred he felt for Jews. Yet a series of small miracles rid Moishe of his bile and baptized him with his new, honorary Jewish name and led him to the New World.

Moishe spends months tending to Bobby, searching for another small miracle, building up Bobby's strength, while at the same time trying to soften his passion for revenge. There is something algebraic in the way Selby develops the relationship between the old man and the fatherless son. The emotional geography of this South Bronx has the abstraction of a parable and frequently suffers the maudlin consequences. His Bronx is the Bronx of the cave, his concentration camp the Auschwitz of the tourist, empty of color, abstract and dimensionless. Even the language reads like variables in an equation, with the words "hood," "righteous" and "dude" punctuating Bobby's flow of maternally based expletives in a formulaic mantra.

It is only in the violence, as Bobby tracks down his assailants, that "The Willow Tree" jumps from mundane black-and-white into "Last Exit" horror. Selby's talent is to describe physical brutality in the cool voice of an urban clinician. There is no setup, no false building of suspense. When Selby decides to attack, it is with the shock of a practiced mugger and with the speed and economy of a poet.

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