Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Better In Your Head?--LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN
Hubert Selby, Jr.
"It was just black."
SPOILER ALERT, there is a light that never turns on.
I respect the memory of Hubert Selby, Jr. He pecked out the stories that would become Last Exit To Brooklyn while struggling to support a family and a drug addiction. It took him over two years to write the story "Tralala," which along with one-half of the story "Strike," gives ya the beginnings of a real good novel.
Promises are made to be broken.
Last Exit is comprised of six tales, each prefaced with a Bible verse, written in the stream of conscious style. Page after page, the reader is inundated with New Yorkers addicted to pain, some of them devoid of redeeming qualities, others sympathetic until the moment of truth that reveals just how richly they deserve their grotesque fates.
The first story, "Another Day, Another Dollar," is an appetizer. Selby's prose bites down with discolored approximations of teeth. The relentless musicality of his style I won't deny. The assertion that this is well-written I will deny. Compared to the works of Irvine Welsh (who penned an introduction for the 2011 Penguin Classics edition of Last Exit), I find this too naked ham-on-white to seize my interest. Honestly, the fuck I was prepared to give shriveled up on page two.
Drunk sailors get their ass beat by greasy Brooklynites. If only the text hit so hard. Face-first in a puke-pool, ho hum.
Next up is "The Queen Is Dead," where Selby introduces us to Georgette, "a hip queer" whose contemptuous treatment of the women she seeks to mimic is counterbalanced with a heartbreaking home life. Seeking solace with drugs and buzz-killing baboons go as well as you'd guess.
"And Baby Makes Three" is the worst. A baby, a wedding, a fistfight. If the author really wanted to do an ace job of shocking me, he woulda had the infant catching a right to the kisser and flying into the cake.
Story four is "Tralala." Ah shit. Now we're talking. Audibly and articulately. Just don't step too close. Tralala is a young, big-tittied hooker not above robbing and/or battering johns. She's so sad and needy that her submission to the miasma is the closest thing to a real tragedy in the whole book.
"Strike" up next. Harry Black is a factory worker who's far more comfortable behind a wall of BS than in front of a lathe. At home a wife and baby boy await, but none of this--employment, matrimony, fatherhood--truly make Harry happy. Sex with the missus is only tolerable if he imagines that each thrust shreds her cunt to pieces. Work is only tolerable as long as the strike he's leading continues.
But then he goes to bed with a fairy named Ginger. What is limb-twisting anguish duty with a woman becomes heart-swelling joy with a man pretending to be a woman. Harry moves on to Regina, another fairy, and is able to treat her to nights on the town with union funds.
Then the strike ends. The extra cash is no longer available; Regina soon follows. Crestfallen and directionless, Harry winds up beaten by the dregs of the neighborhood after trying to forcefully fellate an underage boy.
"Landsend" is the coda, a kaleidoscopic peek at the lives crammed into a Brooklyn housing project: the vicious, the avaricious, the melancholy outlier, it's dysfunction a go-go. Behold the hardscrabble dreamchasers as they sleep (or don't), work (or don't) and fuck (or don't). Seriously, big shouts to Ada, the woman is an emerald in a bucket of filled with every disgusting substance that begins with the letter "s." Selby teases me with an averted disaster involving an infant.
Yeah, I imagine people in the Sixties felt like they'd just walked in on their grandmothers stubbing cigarettes on their labia after reading Last Exit To Brooklyn. Fifty years on, and it still possesses the power to unsettle.
But man, it just isn't that good.
At the time the novel was viewed as incendiary and obscene, but the language isn't all that harsh and the sex isn't particularly prurient. The highs are scattered and subterranean. Selby puts readers among the poor and tired, smashed and stinking, the people who remind you that post-war prosperity didn't spread nationwide. The ones vilipended by their country, their state, their city, their families, their friends, themselves.
Yeah, it's a fine line between poetry and doggerel.
Before even considering the content, there's the matter of construction: Selby eschewed quotation marks and apostrophes in contractions. Sentences run on and on, and further on. Such a style is a logical reaction to the environment--howls, wails and curses that curve in mid-air. Why use standard techniques to tell stories so unconventional? Like so many Beat scribes, Hubert Selby had a great point to make, but neglected adding flour to the mix.
Last Exit To Brooklyn almost made the jump in the mid-Seventies, with renowned animation director Ralph Bakshi in the directors chair and Robert De Niro in the role of Harry Black, only to have the trampoline pulled away by what Bakshi refers to as "past business."
Hubert Selby must have been thrilled to have a European direct the adaptation, since the denizens of that continent showered him with the huzzahs he didn't quite receive in his homeland. (When they weren't banning it for being obscene, anyway.)
Any fan of the book will wince in recognition at the sneering, smirking men pulling their noisome antics. The hoods, the fairies, the hair grease--it's all here. Stephen Baldwin's sleeveless numbskullery stands out, but only because it's Stephen Baldwin, an actor not only incapable of subtlety, but also incapable of correctly spelling or pronouncing the word "subtlety."
The action centers around two characters. Harry Black (Stephen Lang), steel worker and strike leader par excellence. He and his wife fuck with all the tenderness of ducks, and there are few bets surer than the life of repression and aggression that awaits their infant son. Soon, Harry's spending less time at home and more time with a "fairy" named Regina, a wise-ass he meets at a party where he also learns the proper way to smoke a joint. Following his queer urges doesn't make Harry any less of a jerk, though, and when the neighborhood goons turned him into a bloody pretzel for trying to blow a little boy, well, I wished I had pom-poms.
The other "main" character is Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a hooker with a heart of burnt tinfoil. She has squat to offer--so she thinks, so she knows?--other than her body. Her competitive spirit rises in tandem with her blood alcohol level in a bar full of seaman and the women trying to bang them. She tears off her top and stumbles around the joint, not much minding the groping and leering. The men become animals--a transformation completed with distressing quickness.
Interspersed is the comic relief. Donna (Ricki Lake) has been knocked up by her boyfriend, but she was already so fat that her father (Burt Young) didn't even notice until she was on the verge of bursting. Hilarious! All I took from it was too many people, too little living space, too many curlers in a woman's hair and not enough cotton stretched over a man's upper body.
This is a film too shot through with hysteria to take seriously. I'd say this is down more on the director than the writer, but then again I would. Jennifer Jason Leigh received considerable critical acclaim, but Alexis Arquette pretty much steals the show as the doomed queen Georgette. Her appearance is short, yet heart-shattering.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Director Uli Edel nails the bleak and barren landscape, but no one familiar with the book (or really, anyone who's seen more than twenty R-rated movies) is likely to be impressed. Sunset Park, Brooklyn in the 1950s, stomping grounds for the type of guys who only feel at home within prison walls and the women who depend upon them.
Since Harry's story took up the most space in the book, of course it's featured most prominently in the movie. The script doesn't care much about the actual factory strike, save for Jerry Orbach cursing at a sweaty room. Nor does the script care about Harry's joy at having fallen in love. Only so far as that love is taboo (and ergo wicked) and will lead to his comeuppance at the hands and feet of avenging demons.
Still, good luck to any filmmaker bringing post-coital self-disgust that haunts all planes of a person's consciousness to life. The slime, the blood, the spit, that's the easy stuff. Recreating spiritual desolation is near-impossible. A close-up of a twitchy, pale face drenched in sweat is sack-lunch stuff.
Tralala's tragedy is harrowing in moving pictures as well as static words. Turns out, the script rode caboose. Apparently believing that the sight of a thoroughly abused woman supplied insufficient pathos, the filmmakers have a young boy approach her trashed body. His innocence shattered at such a scandalous sight, he needs solace. Who better than the broken, battered girl who was kind to him that one time when those goons she hangs out with were tormenting him?
Tralala lifts herself up and begins consoling the child. Selby approved of this addition, but damned if it doesn't ring false. One thing I took away from the novel (other than confirmation that an absurdist is just a nihilist with a sense of humor) is that comfort does not exist for any of these shiftless souls. Was I supposed to feel bad for Tralala? I felt bad for the whole situation, the chain of events that led a young woman to relinquish her humanity and become an all-you-can-eat mashed potato buffet. Georgette's story is less tawdry, but more affecting. Her ambivalence over her lifestyle, the grossly hirsute brother who heaps verbal and physical abuse, the taxi cab driver whose alcohol intake will surely increase by six ounces a day…Georgette's death feels like a true loss.
MIND THE GAP
I don't think I'm superior to Hubert Selby's work or the characters he created. I simply find the squalor unspectacular at day's end. The sense-free violence, the casual drug use, the loveless sex, all slide off of me like my skin's been rubbed down with udon broth.
Near the start of the review, I stated my belief that Last Exit To Brooklyn is basically the beginnings of a quality novel surrounded by so-so short stories. "Tralala" is devastating, "The Queen Is Dead" is unsettling, but no one's journey has a more stubborn aftertaste than that of Harry Black. He loathes his wife; "hate-fuck" does not begin to cover the night of coital duty the reader is made privy to. He is a lazy worker, a superficial friend. He is also a closeted queer longing to make a meaningful connection. After meeting a drag queen named Alberta, Harry goes from bull to dolphin. Sex with Alberta is satisfying a need, not fulfilling a duty. Powered along by novelty and lust, his pistons begin moving: Harry realizes, to his supreme shock, that he's happy. Around Alberta, and later Regina, he's more relaxed, eager to touch and be touched. Around his wife, he's brooding and brutal.
He would be, in the hands of a more cautious writer, a redemptive character. In the hands of Hubert Selby, he goes from touching an infant's penis in wonder to begging a pre-teen boy for a BJ. That such a spiritually fatigued man winds up in a Jesus Christ pose amusing; Harry Black ain't a martyr. He died for his sins and his alone. As do we all, one day. (Selby put in all those Bible verses for a reason: one apple doomed us all.)
Last Exit To Brooklyn shows us a world that is distasteful, disgusting, disloyal and disinterested in any other world. But is that world unfair? Life is a game. A game has winners and losers. More players lose than win. The rules demand it be so. What separates us, what distinguishes "success" from "failure" is luck. Good, bad, and dumb. Most people will experience all three, but a preponderance of one type dictates whether or not someone will be considered a "winner" or a "loser."
Was she asking for it?
I'm fond of making my own personal lists, some of which you would never find the mate of on Buzzfeed. Top 5 Places I'd Like To Feel a Bullet Penetrate, Top 3 Cancers I Want To Be Diagnosed With, Top 10 Ways To Integrate Dog Meat Into My Diet. Nothing is etched in stone, of course, but most of my rankings stay put. My Top 5 Most Depressing Things I've Ever Sat Through had remained unchanged since 2007. Then this past year I read Requiem For a Dream and not only did I have to make room for a new entry, it shot all the way up to the top spot! Take that, my dad's funeral.* Also take that, my plans to have a second Hubert Selby adaptation in this review series.
The "Baby Makes Three" story which weaves in and out as a sort of comic massage works slightly better here than in the novel, since the movie has Burt "The Human Goomba" Young as the oblivious grandpa-to-be.
Nothing from the coda made the jump. Real life has given me more than enough exposure to tit-slapping, pussy-grabbing, caps-locking cretins.
Pressure does not always create diamonds. Reading Last Exit To Brooklyn is not a matchless experience, but an unforgettable one nonetheless. The movie is a well-intentioned failure.
So take yer pick--a mouthful of sand or a mouthful of excretum. Neither is desirable, but one is really undesirable. "Better" is relative, here.
*For any family members reading--I am kidding.