Hubert Selby Jr.: The Counterpoint to the Demon Is Love

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 by Rob Couteau

Open Road Media is proud to present the second installment of our Critical Symposium on Hubert Selby, Jr. Yesterday we featured an essay by American literature scholar James R. Giles. Today author Rob Couteau examines the powerful role of violence in Selby’s work. As always, we invite you to join the discussion in the comments section below.

Rob Couteau is the author of the novel Doctor Pluss, the anthology Collected Couteau, the memoir Letters from Paris, and the poetry collection The Sleeping Mermaid. In 1985 he won the North American Essay Award, a competition open to North American writers and sponsored by the American Humanist Association. His work as a critic, interviewer, and social commentator is featured in books such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, by Thomas Fahy; Conversations with Ray Bradbury, ed. Steven Aggelis; and David Cohen’s Forgotten Millions, a book about the homeless mentally ill. His writing has also appeared in over thirty-five literary publications. His books are available from Amazon, B&N, and Google. Learn more about him here. 

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I remember, when I was eight or ten years old, making a decision that I was going to find a way to stop the suffering in the world…. I guess I had, by that time, seen enough suffering. And I just wanted people to stop hurting each other. —Hubert Selby Jr., in an interview with the author

It would be difficult to think of an American writer who suffered a greater amount of physical and mental pain and anguish than Hubert Selby Jr., or one who depicts rage, brutality, and violence on such a raw, maniacal, sociopathic level.

Oddly enough, it never occurred to me to ask Selby about the role of violence in his work. Reading him now, I realize it’s not just the characters in his stories who are assaulted; the reader is a victim of the greatest assault of all. No matter how monstrous or horrific his depictions of abject brutality are, Selby always ups the ante and makes them worse, pushing the limits until, by the end of the tale, he manages to rape our imagination once again, to puncture yet another hole in our innocence.

Selby was not only a victim of the violence done to him by terrific illnesses and endless surgeries. He also grew up in a neighborhood where it was taken for granted that you could have your head handed to you for the slightest infraction, but only after it was stomped on, bloodied to a pulp, burnt with cigarettes, kicked like a soccer ball, and sliced like an onion. It didn’t occur to me to dwell on this aspect of his work because I grew up not far from Selby’s Bay Ridge, less than thirty years after Selby, and not much had changed there during those decades. Indeed, when I raised this with him, he said: “Yeah, Bay Ridge, I think, is the same for the last eighty years. With a few physical exceptions.” With its tree-lined sidewalks and miniature backyards where you could plant a garden, with its gemütlich block parties and ecstatic games of stoop ball and stick ball and box ball, with its sunny summer days—the fire hydrants open full blast and the radios from parked convertibles blaring pop music—you could imagine for a moment that you were in some strange man-made heaven. But then, a carload of kids comes screeching down the block at sixty miles an hour and swerves to a halt. Baseball bats in hand, they go chasing someone up an alley because he made the mistake of trying to steal a bicycle.

Violence, vengeance, terror, and torture for the fun of it: This was all a “normal” part of our everyday world. Although Selby was a part of that world, he was also endowed with a large measure of empathy, compassion, and artistry with which to portray it. Of the many incredible facets of his life, the fact that he was blessed with this talent is perhaps the most miraculous thing of all. There was no one to mentor or guide him, or even to suggest such a calling.

That he managed to develop, hone, and refine his talent and plug away at it day after day—mocking the palpable presence of death even after the doctors said he would not live much longer—is the one thing that doesn’t surprise me. Selby was a graduate from the Brooklyn School of Hard Knocks, which meant that, if you put your will to it, anything was possible. Once you survived that time and place, the rest was a piece of cake. This was the mentality and approach Selby fostered, and it paid off. In his own humble words:

See, you must remember that I have no natural talents or abilities in any area of life. I’m not a natural writer or a natural reader. I’m not an exceptional mechanic; I’m not an exceptional athlete; I’m not a draftsman at all; I can’t draw or. . . . Absolutely no natural talent. But I had an obsession to do something with my life before I died. And I just sat in front of that typewriter every day, for six years, until I learned how to write. Now, I can’t say that the ability wasn’t there, obviously. I guess it was there, and I just had to fight like hell to activate it, to animate it. . . . It was a lot, a lot of work.

In each of his books, there is an ever-increasing arc of inhumanity, suffering, and pointless pain, yet there’s something else that stands in shocking contrast to all this. In the midst of a loveless, godless, twisted universe, characters appear who nurture an alternative vision. Even while surrounded by such hopelessness and pain, they yearn for something gentler. Something that would allow a reprieve, or a bit of love, or even a chance at greatness.

No matter how awful her treatment is at the hands of Vinnie and his pals, Georgette—the “hip queer” of Last Exit to Brooklyn—still imagines that Vinnie will eventually offer his affection and make everything OK. Even the most sociopathic figures in Selby’s demented cosmos hold out for experiences that will make them feel, if not more human, then at least more alive. Harry, the murderer in The Demon, is lured by antisocial acts because at least they allow him to feel something and to escape the numbing, deadening milieu of a soulless, corporate lifestyle. The nameless prisoner of The Room is driven to fantasies of torture because they serve as a compensation for the endless humiliations and mental torture he has survived. No matter how “bad” these characters are, this sliver of humanity, this urge for self-transformation grips us and draws us to their plight.

Selby once said: “There is no light in my stories, so the reader is forced to turn to his own inner light” to make it through this journey. I now realize this is only partially true. The great beacon in his demonic oeuvre is that of the artfully crafted line and the immense vision of wholeness and transcendence that lurks behind it. Selby’s empathy is there, omnipresent, even while recording the darkest hues of black. The utmost depravity is portrayed with the noblest poetry.

I have always considered Hubert Selby Jr. to be not just a novelist but a poet as well. Only the most refined lyrical genius could have crafted sentences that, had they been presented with traditional line breaks, would read as the best that poetry can offer. The transcendental vision of the high artist is right there, in the forefront of his “prose.” And it is the contrast of this highest thing that humanity can accomplish—creation—with the lowest that it often succumbs to that makes Selby a great artist and makes his work what it is: some of the most powerful literature of our times.

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Read Couteau’s other writings on Selby: “Defining the Sacred”: Rob Couteau’s Interview with Hubert Selby and Reviews of Selby’s The Demon and The Room

Please come back next week to read our final essay by novelist Michael Gregory Stephens.

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