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Hubert Selby Jr., 75; Wrote Existential Novels

Times Staff Writer

Hubert Selby Jr., the internationally acclaimed author of “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” “Requiem for a Dream” and other dark, existential novels that dealt with the victims of a society that had failed them, has died. He was 75.

Selby, who had been in and out of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ West Los Angeles Healthcare Center in recent weeks, died Monday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at home in Highland Park, said his wife, Suzanne.

Selby has been called an “underground living legend in American letters,” a writer who battled alcoholism, heroin addiction and a series of life-threatening illnesses that resulted from the tuberculosis that nearly killed him as a young man.

The Brooklyn-born former dockworker who served in the merchant marines during World War II found international prominence with the 1964 publication of “Last Exit.” The landmark novel generated controversy with its raw portrayal of life on the Brooklyn waterfront: a violent and profane world of striking union workers, brutal young thugs, ex-convicts, prostitutes and transvestites.

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Time magazine slammed the dark, uncompromising novel as a “dirty book” that shunned “all the pleasant moments of life,” while Newsweek praised it as a “serious work of literature.”

In Britain, a London judge labeled the book obscene and ordered the police to destroy all copies. (The case was fought and won by Selby’s publisher in 1967.) Taking up the obscenity debate in the Saturday Review, critic John Ciardi wrote that although the book should not be banned, “damned it must be.”

Jim Ragan, director of the Master’s of Professional Writing Program at USC, where Selby taught for about 20 years as an adjunct professor, said Selby was one of the last of a generation of banned visionary authors such as William S. Burroughs (“Naked Lunch”) and Henry Miller (“Tropic of Cancer”).

“They were breaking molds, breaking the rules of what could be written,” Ragan said. Selby “was always on the cutting edge. He just didn’t want to be seen as a cliche, as a conformist. He went against the taboos.”

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One of the best examples of that, Ragan said, was the gang rape of the prostitute Tralala in “Last Exit.”

“The indiscriminate violation of a human being so graphically presented was just absolutely unheard of,” Ragan said.

But at the center of all of Selby’s work was humanity, the educator said. “His writing was always about the ordinary person, the victim and the dreams that are unfilled.”

Los Angeles novelist John Rechy, author of the groundbreaking books “City of Night” and “The Sexual Outlaw,” called Selby “one of the great writers of his time” but said the author was underappreciated.

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“The way he was treated toward the last -- that he had to go to small publishers to be published -- indicates the kind of situation that a serious writer, in this case a great writer, goes through,” said Rechy, who also teaches writing at USC. “He lived under very stringent situations.”

But over the years, Rechy said, Selby’s “writing never diminished; it always increased. His body of work is among the very highest of contemporary writers. He did not get the acknowledgment that he deserved, but he will.”

The son of a hard-drinking marine engineer, Selby grew up primarily in the middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge. He quit school at 15 and left home to work on the Brooklyn waterfront. At 18, during his first voyage on a freighter, he contracted tuberculosis. He spent nearly four years in hospitals, during which he had a number of ribs removed, suffered a collapsed lung, had a piece removed from the other one and contracted the hepatitis C virus.

During his convalescence, Selby began to read. From Mickey Spillane mystery novels, he progressed to “Dos Passos, Saroyan, Baudelaire, anything I could get my hand on,” he later recalled.

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At one point, after marrying his first wife and becoming a father, Selby suffered such a severe asthma attack that he wasn’t expected to live.

“I had already been given up for dead three times, but again I refused to die,” he told The Times. “Nobody tells me what to do! But I did have a spiritual experience: I’d either die and regret my entire life or live my life over and then die. I had to do something with my life, so I bought a typewriter.”

It took him six years to write “Last Exit.” After its success, he began drinking heavily again.

“I’ve always been an alcoholic,” he once told The Times. “I can’t remember when I didn’t want to drink. With money coming in, I had the means to pursue my disease with exuberance.”

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Selby stopped drinking in 1969, two years after giving up the drugs he had become addicted to while hospitalized with tuberculosis. In a 2001 interview, he said his first four books “were all about obsessions of the mind. What I attempt to do is go as deeply into the darkness of the human soul as possible and then hopefully come back.”

Ragan saw that lighter side of Selby. “You wouldn’t think the man who wrote these dark, heavy books could be as gentle and funny as he was,” the educator said. “I loved this man dearly. He had so much courage. He actually came to class within the last year with an oxygen pack -- to help with his breathing -- and a cane. And he did not miss a class. He was so committed to his students. They loved him for that.”

Selby’s other novels include “The Room” (1971), “The Demon” (1976), “The Willow Tree” (1998) and “Waiting Period” (2002). A collection of short stories, “Song of the Silent Snow,” was published in 1986.

“Last Exit to Brooklyn” was made into a movie in 1989. And Selby shared the screenwriting credit on the 2000 film version of his 1978 novel, “Requiem for a Dream,” for which Ellen Burstyn earned a best actress Oscar nomination.

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In addition to Suzanne, his third wife, he is survived by his children, Claudia Selby, Kyle Mack, Rachel Selby and William Selby; and 11 grandchildren.


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