Photo by Gretchen Knotts
Hubert Selby used to joke that, though The New York Times didn’t review his books, he was pretty fucking sure they’d run his obituary. He was right.
Selby preferred to be called “Cubby” despite the decidedly un-baby-bear-like, gleefully sepulchral remnant of a body that he carried around on his twisted-coat-hanger bones. I could never get it straight — whether doctors had removed half his ribs and deflated one lung, or if they’d cut out three-quarters of his lungs, 10 ribs and a chunk of spine the size of a clenched fist by way of treating the TB he caught as a runaway in the merchant marine. Before penicillin.
However many categories precede skinny, Cubby’s was the closest to not being there at all. Physically, the one job he seemed fit for was popping out of a jack-in-the-box in hell. That or felonious leprechaun. But there is no one I’d have rather had next to me in a street fight.
The literary phenom who stares like Brando from the back of the Grove Press paperback of Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1964 stared even more fiercely 40 years later, when not one breath came easy, and the Irish skeleton’s skull seemed to be pushing out from inside his translucent skin.
“I’ve been dying since I was born” was a favorite Selby line. Another was: “My whole life, I was a scream looking for a mouth.” I can honestly tell you he was the most cheerful man I ever met.
To say that Hubert Selby Jr. influenced a lot of people doesn’t quite get it. Selby was not the kind of writer who influenced you, he was the kind who saved your life.
On the artistic level, he showed you that you didn’t have to keep living your nightmares to write about them. But his achievements as a writer, revolutionary as they were, were matched by another kind of accomplishment — equally revolutionary if hard to quantify in a language as befouled as ours in matters of compassion, selflessness and what, for lack of a less Oprahed-out term, can only be called unconditional love.
So if I announce myself as one whose blather Hubert Selby Jr. took the time to listen to, and whose addled psyche he helped patch back together — for no reason that I could see at the time — understand that the amazing thing is that such kindness was not particularly amazing.
There are hundreds, probably thousands of full-time self-destructors who knew Cubby not as the Dante of the urban American inferno — or not just — but as an unshockable, hysterically funny, shirt-off-his-back generous, foul-mouthed spiritual giant and Gandhiesque motherfucker who’d kicked dope in jail, suffered in love, done time as a single father on welfare, and held his mud as he endured physical suffering matched by no other writer in recent memory except, perhaps, Dennis Potter.
But Selby, unlike Potter, did not opt for the Bronfman’s cocktail, or any other well-earned narco-relief, to ease his torment. He did it on the natch. Here was a man who lived a life that made Job look like Bob Guccione. With nothing tangible to coat his nerve ends. Which meant something to legions who could not endure three feelings in a row without some petrochemical IV or over-the-counter “No sale after 2 a.m.” refreshment to kill them.
The Room, one of my favorite Selby books, and arguably the darkest work of fiction in any language since the Bible, reads like all of Selby’s stories: as if dictated by a man standing in a puddle with his finger in a socket. Its nameless incarcerated narrator, like the junkies, rapists, thieves, drag queens, sex fiends, demented housewives, sadistic cops and other saints who populated Planet Selby, spoke to him in voices the author could no more deny than judge. That he was able to hear them at all Selby himself considered proof of the Divine.
For those less spiritually evolved, Cubby’s continued existence alone was proof that a man could prevail over anything. He was so broke, he told me once, that when he was sick, he went to the pet store and bought fish antibiotics. How many other writers could claim that, even after producing a literary masterpiece or two, they had to scarf goldfish meds?
You could trust Selby because you knew he’d been there, and because he wasn’t there anymore. Whenever he mentioned past or present agonies, it was never to complain. It was to illustrate some cosmic joke. The cosmic joke. And the story usually ended in a cackle. It was hard, at first, to reconcile that savage landscape he blowtorched onto the page with the gentleness he seemed to radiate in the flesh. But more was always revealed.
Once, in a moment when desperation got the better of dignity, I foisted some ragged version of a book I was trying to write into Selby’s hands. His comments made clear that what had seemed, to my limited vision, like a disconnect in his personality was in fact its unifying principle. “When you write about somebody you hate,” he told me, handing the soiled pages back, “write about them with love . . .”
This seemed, at the time, like a counterintuitive if not downright suspect exercise. But I adhered to his direction with unquestioning fervor. Because, it soon became obvious, this wasn’t a writing tip — it was a survival tool. A weapon. By loving the monster you kept both of you human. Whatever the monster is capable of, you are capable of too.
Could any revelation be more cynical — or more transcendent? About what you’d expect from a Buddha straight out of Brooklyn.
To lift a 1988 quotation on the subject of his subject matter, from the obituary the late Mr. Selby predicted The New York Times would run, “The events that take place are the way people are . . . How can anybody look inside themselves and be surprised at the hatred and violence in the world? It’s inside all of us.”
In the end, some people get why Requiem for a Dream’s “Harry locked his mother in the closet” may be the single greatest first sentence in the history of American fiction. And some — God bless their pristine livers — never will.
If there exists a higher art than rendering the ugly beautiful, it was Hubert Selby’s angel-headed hipster genius to comprehend that there is no more necessary one. The world is a much less monstrous place for Cubby having lived in it. But I’m prejudiced. I loved the guy.