Fifty Years Later, Looking for Last Exit

Fifty years ago this fall, Grove Press published Last Exit to Brooklyn, a collection of revolting interweaving stories — which Hubert Selby Jr. had begun publishing in literary magazines as early as 1957 — that became a controversial instant classic of postwar urban degeneracy, populated by drunks, drug addicts, violently repressed homosexuals, victimized transvestites, worn-out laborers, and idle thugs. It’s not the only one of Selby’s six novels (and one story collection) still in print — Da Capo Press still publishes his other best-known book, Requiem for a Dream, thanks surely in part to Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film adaptation — though it’s the only one I’ve ever seen on shelves in Brooklyn’s independent bookstores, when they stock any Selby books at all. Still, neither Grove nor anyone else has announced plans for a 50th anniversary edition; it seems like Allen Ginsberg’s hope (once used in a full-page ad in the New York Times, now a pull quote on the paperback) that the book “should explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years” may have been dashed.

Maybe it’s because the book is so out of step with our culture’s present conception of Brooklyn: the gentrifier’s paradise, the locus of middle-class return following the previous generation’s flight. The struggling bottom-rungers may still exist on Brooklyn’s fringes, but they are no longer its face, a face Selby was at least partially responsible for. “Selby’s book … helped shape Brooklyn’s sixties image as a failing and forbidding urban community,” Evan Hughes writes in his essential survey Literary Brooklyn. “Even if you didn't read the book, if you’d heard of it, you knew it was about an urban nightmare, and the word ‘Brooklyn’ was right there in the title.”

Selby’s six stories (save one, set in the Red Hook Houses, a public housing complex built in 1938) take place in a southwestern industrial section of the book’s titular borough, just north of more residential Bay Ridge, where the author grew up; the original paperback’s author bio — written by Selby’s lifelong friend, former classmate, adult mentor and Grove Press editor, the novelist Gilbert Sorrentino — notes, as a “fuck you” to pretentious academic credentialing, that he graduated from P.S. 102, the primary school on Ridge Boulevard. Known to most throughout his life as Cubby, Selby was born in 1928 at Victory Memorial Hospital, just a year after it opened atop a filled-in pond on Seventh Avenue and 92nd Street. (The hospital was admired locally for its maternity ward, though not its general services, before it closed in 2008.) His father was a transplanted Kentucky coal miner and former Merchant Marine who had settled in Bay Ridge with his wife, Adalin; various addresses for the family have been cited, probably because they moved around: “near Eighth Avenue,” and on 72nd Street and Third Avenue, and on 68th Street.

The Sunset Park stretch of Third Avenue, canopied by the Gowanus Expressway.

Selby attended Stuyvesant High School for a year but dropped out in 1944 and joined the Merchant Marine, in which his father had reenlisted. He served until 1947, when he contracted tuberculosis while stationed in Europe, then spent the next three years in bed; ten ribs had to be removed, and he had chronic breathing problems, including asthma. When Hubert died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 2004, his son told the Times it was “the long-term consequence of the tuberculosis he had contracted while at sea during World War II.” Selby Jr. left the hospital and returned to the U.S. in 1950, settling back in Brooklyn and rekindling his friendship with Sorrentino, who was then studying at Brooklyn College and palling around with literary up-and-comers like Robert Creeley and LeRoi Jones (long before he renamed himself Amiri Baraka). They started a small magazine. “I was the original publisher of Neon,” Selby wrote in 1981. “I put up $13.50, not a penny of which was ever repaid. I guess it’s time to use it as a tax write-off.” At the Neon crowd’s encouragement, and without solid employment prospects because of his chronic illness, he began setting down stories about the people with whom he came into contact in the seedier district of his hometown.

Today, we’d call Last Exit’s setting a part of Sunset Park — though many have confused it with Red Hook, including almost every New York Times writer of the last 30 years, especially after parts of Uli Edel’s 1989 film version were shot there. It’s a unique corner of that diverse community, whose boundaries extend east to Eighth Avenue, the major thoroughfare of Brooklyn’s Chinatown: in 1941, New York's notorious urban planner Robert Moses erected an elevated expressway on Third Avenue, destroying that once-vibrant commercial strip and isolating First and Second avenues from the eastern part of the neighborhood, sequestering its industrial district and killing off any traces of residentiality it had ever maintained while allowing it to retain its much of its manufacturing character.

That industry had established itself in earnest at the turn of the 20th century, when Brooklyn’s southwestern waterfront — north of Bay Ridge’s proto-Hamptons coastline, dotted with mansions owned by the city’s elite — still featured fishing shacks, a holdover from the area’s then not-too-distant farmland past. In 1890, Irving T. Bush inherited his father’s fortune, made when Rufus’s company was absorbed into Standard Oil, as well as two lots right on the water, “used for dumping ashes and other refuse from the oil refinery,” as the Times reported in Irving’s 1948 obituary. The son-and-heir envisioned here a shipping hub, which he built in 1902. It took a few years to catch on, in the interim derided as “Bush’s Folly” — its distance from the city’s commercial hubs made potential patrons balk — but Bush Terminal soon grew into what his Times obituary would call “a city itself”: 200 acres on 30 city blocks, with eight enormous piers, eighteen industrial buildings, 21 miles of railroad track, 125 warehouses, and 300 manufacturing buildings, employing 25,000 people a day at its height. The sheer scale of the operation led the Army to commandeer it during World War I, while it built its own compound a mile south. Completed in 1919, the Brooklyn Army Terminal missed the height of the Great War but came in handy during the next one, when three million soldiers shipped out of there, as well as 37 million tons of supplies. Elvis embarked from the Army Terminal after he was drafted in 1958.

An aerial view of Bush Terminal in 1958.

Selby’s novel is set in the years after World War II, and the Brooklyn Army Terminal complex is its hub, stretching seven blocks down Second Avenue, south from 58th Street. It’s the book’s first geographical reference: Selby begins the book on “Another drag of a night … near the Brooklyn Armybase," as it was then known. (Present-day southern Brooklynites might initially mistake the book’s setting for the southern terminus of Fort Hamilton Parkway, as New York's only active military installation, Fort Hamilton, roughly two miles south around the coast from the Brooklyn Army Terminal, is today colloquially called "the Army Base.") The BAT employed 56,000 people at its peak, including the sorts of nonnative soldiers with whom Selby’s slick wiseasses pick fights in the opening story, "Another Day Another Dollar."

Once in a while some doggie or seaman came in for hamburger and played the jukebox. But they usually played some goddam hillbilly record … If somebody played a Lefty Frazell record or some other shitkicker they moaned, made motions with their hands (man! what a fuckin square) and walked out to the street.

Robert McNamara decommissioned the base in the 1960s, dealing the area a serious economic blow. But the Army Terminal complex still stands; in 1981, the city bought it and re-created it as an industrial park. (Bush Terminal saw a similar if more gradual decline, in line with the death of manufacturing that affected the whole city and country, but parts of it have now been reborn as “Industry City,” home to industrial kitchens helping to fuel Brooklyn’s artisanal food scene, rooftop farming, and other concerns — including, soon, practice space for the Brooklyn Nets.) The BAT now houses more than 70 civilian businesses that employ more than 2,500 people; cultural institutions like the Guggenheim and Natural History Museum have offices here, as do the mayor, the Department of Transportation, medical servicers, manufacturers, and even Tough Mudder, the obstacle-course events company. The Second Avenue Arsenal across the street, built in the 1920s and vacated in the 1950s, has been converted into a private storage facility, and a Ford dealership has been nestled into the base's northeastern edge. Though the walk from the subway is unpleasant, taking you underneath Moses’s expressway, this part of Second Avenue buzzes on weekdays with traffic — pedestrian, vehicle, commercial — that recall parts of Midtown during lunch.

This is also thanks to Lutheran Medical Center, responsible for most of the rest of the area’s development and transformation. It opened its first family health center there in 1967, three years after Selby’s book was published. Lutheran relocated its hospital to its current site on Second Avenue, between 55th and 56th streets, a decade later, and in the ensuing decades took over quite a bit of surrounding real estate for offices, senior housing, and ancillary medical facilities, in the process remaking the neighborhood in its own image. In terms of its ubiquity, Lutheran is to this part of Sunset Park what NYU is to Greenwich Village. Its imprint is visible everywhere, because there was so much available to imprint. “In 1967, the vibrant, diverse community in southwest Brooklyn now known as Sunset Park was a forgotten part of the Bay Ridge neighborhood,” according to a history on the hospital’s website. “The area had few jobs, even fewer doctors, and almost no hope. Neighborhood residents were poor, unemployed, depressed and frustrated.” Sounds a bit like the characters in Last Exit!

Lutheran Medical Center, in the years following the publication of Selby’s novel, proved to be a transformative force in Sunset Park.

The jobs that did exist, pre-Lutheran and pre-urban-renewal industrial parks, were in the area’s docks and factories and warehouses that hung on past the pernicious decommissioning. Many of these buildings, however, remain active: during a walk down First and Second avenues and connecting streets, I found signage for companies offering lumber, wall supply, architectural glass, wholesale meat, welding, boiler rentals, environmentally friendly tableware and much more. (It feels not unlike Kent Avenue before Bloomberg shifted North Williamsburg’s economy from small industry to boutique real estate.) Selby never locates the metal shop in “Strike,” the book’s novella-length section about a low-level shop steward, Harry, enjoying perks during an otherwise debilitating work stoppage, but it’s running distance from the book’s central settings and would most likely be in the midst of these surviving manufacturers.

Selby wrote about Harry and the rest with palpable rage. “You don’t understand life until you die or come close to dying,” he said in a 1992 interview, talking about his tuberculosis. “That may have a lot to do with the nature of my writing.” The book’s vivid portraiture repulsed many critics. Time magazine sarcastically called it “Grove Press's extra special dirty book for fall.” The Saturday Review claimed Selby was “moved to the writing by no other purpose than to out-vomit, out-rape, out-bash, out-smear and out-stink every other literary roughneck on the scene.” (Of course, the controversy helped the book sell, and the response wasn’t uniformly negative. “Before Last Exit was published Gil wrote a piece called, ‘The Art of Hubert Selby, Jr.,’” Selby wrote in 1981, referring to Gilbert Sorrentino. “As I understand it Grove Press sent this out with the pre-publication copies of the book so the reviewers werent on completely unfamiliar ground in writing about the book. Im convinced that this played a very important part in the good reviews the book received.”) The book was banned in Italy, and in the U.K. it became the focus of a monumental obscenity trial, “one of the crucial legal decisions that helped end the reign of censorship in British culture,” according to The Guardian.

The nexus of Selby’s Brooklyn is 57th Street and Second Avenue, just north of the Army Terminal and just south of present-day Lutheran Medical Center; almost all of the characters — except those in the panoramic last story, “Landsend,” set in the Red Hook Houses — eat at the Greek’s, “a beatup all night diner,” or drink at Willie's next door, and the provisional strike office where Harry, the union men and the local bennyheads spend much of “Strike,” drinking kegs of beer, is on the same block. (It’s difficult to determine whether they would be north or south of this corner, as Brooklynites are divided as to what “up” and “down” the block means: some use it willy-nilly, others interchangeably, still others with cardinal directions implied. As Selby once told an interviewer, “you don’t find much physical description in my work. I don’t describe the streets too much or anything else. But I try to get as deeply inside the people who live on those streets as possible. I think that’s what you’re experiencing: what it’s like to live on those streets.”)

Such storefronts in this area are mostly gone; subsequently constructed medical facilities now stand where coffee shops and bars would once have been, though on 58th Street, just west of Second Avenue, you’ll find Cafe 58, a breakfast spot and pizza place that’s considerably less rough-and-tumble than the greasy spoon where Selby’s characters congregate. Down the block is a sandwich shop called Bari, also catering to the Army Terminal’s new workforce. A few blocks north, a Subway sandwich shop caters to the hospital, as does a bodega offering organic foods. There are no more bars down here, though if you walk east on 58th Street, under the expressway and all the way to Fourth Avenue, you’ll find a watering hole called Irish Haven, whose divey disposition approximates that which you might have found in a place like Willie’s (though the clientele these days tends more toward city workers, contractors, and their middle-class kids than working-class factory drones).

A factory smokestack, an artifact from Sunset Park’s industrial years, still towers over the neighborhood.

Selby wouldn’t have recognized any of this. He’d left just around the time the area started to bounce back from its postwar nadir, in large part because of his problems with substance abuse. His struggle with tuberculosis introduced him to morphine, Demerol, codeine, sleeping pills, and heroin, as well as heavy alcohol consumption, and he struggled with addiction. He began bouncing between the coasts, and was arrested in 1967 for driving under the influence of heroin. He kicked the habit cold turkey while in isolation and gave up drinking two years later, remaining clean until he died, but he also left New York and its temptations behind in 1983, settling for keeps in Los Angeles, where he taught creative writing at USC. In contrast to Sorrentino, who repeatedly returned to his Bay Ridge childhood in his novels and even returned to the old neighborhood to live upon retirement, Selby’s interest drifted. Other books were set in other parts of the city — Requiem for a Dream farther south in Brighton Beach and Coney Island, the late novel The Willow Tree in the South Bronx — and sometimes even back in Bay Ridge, sort of. His third novel, The Demon (1976), about a proto-Patrick Bateman whose sexual repression eventually manifests itself as homicidal impulse, opens in the old neighborhood — around 65th Street, before the construction in 1972 of the staggeringly tall Mitchell-Lama apartment towers now there — but soon drifts up to Park Avenue and the city’s northern suburbs. As though admitting his ambivalence toward the area, Selby has a friend of the main character, Harry, confront him early on in a bar:

You know your trouble? Taking his hand off Harrys shoulder. Your trouble is you aint got no loyalty.

What do you mean I aint got any loyalty?

Just what I said. We/re all friends. Grown up together in the same neighborhood and all that shit, but you aint got no feelings about it.

Get off it. I have as much loyalty as you or anyone else...

Yeah, that may be, smiling, but you sure dont show it. You may be a brain, an all that, but youre a son of a bitch…

But loyalty’s a funny thing: the characters of Selby’s stories could hardly be said to be loyal to their loved ones, and especially not their neighbors, and the thrust of development in New York City prevents the future from ever staying loyal to the past. Still, vestiges survive. A vacant lot on the corner of 57th and Second is one of the book's major settings: it's where the dementedly closeted Harry molests a boy at the end of “Strike,” and where the escort Tralala is gang-raped in the book’s most notorious scene. Today, no such lot has survived: the four corners are occupied by a Gulf station, a Dunkin’ Donuts (which recently celebrated its “grand reopening”), a health clinic built in the ’70s, and senior housing constructed in 1995. But this part of Brooklyn still features many vacant lots — including right down the block, on 57th Street and First Avenue — an increasing rarity in a borough where real estate values have skyrocketed and show no signs of returning to Earth. On the corner of 61st Street and Second Avenue, there's an overgrown, fenced-in lot the size of a small apartment building; this summer, a box spring stuck out from among the weeds, a grim evocation of Tralala’s sorry fate. “Bay Ridge, I think, is the same for the last 80 years,” Selby told an interviewer in 1999. The rough-and-tumble character of Last Exit’s Brooklyn might be gone, but — for now, at least, until some developer figures out how to convince the borough’s nouveau riche that this is the new Red Hook — its atmosphere persists, Selby’s literary ghost still stalking the brick-building-lined streets, looking for some place to grab a beer.

Henry Stewart is an assistant editor at Opera News. He was previously the culture editor of The L Magazine, and his writing has appeared in Electric Literature, BAMbill, and the Brooklyn Eagle.

Eric E. Anderson is a web designer and front-end developer at Squarespace. A resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he is also a freelance photographer.

Also in this issue

The Ad Men

A peek inside a company that’s been hand-painting larger-than-life advertisements around New York for a decade. Photos by Angela Datre.

Q&A: Robert Gangi, of the Police Reform Organizing Project

A lifelong activist on why the end of stop-and-frisk is only the beginning of a battle to reform the NYPD. Interview by John Surico