When Hubert Selby Jr. was pronounced dead last week at 75, it wasn’t for the first time. In a life as gritty and pummeled as that of his characters, most notably in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) and Requiem for a Dream (1978), this merchant marine-turned-literary enfant terrible spent his younger years in a tuberculosis ward as 10 ribs and a lung and a half were gradually removed from his frail body. A self-described “scream looking for a mouth,” Selby was the literary godfather of the inner demon. After his experiences of war at sea in the ’40s and Red Hook in the ’50s, no asphalt was too filthy for his stereoscopic magnifying glass, no inner torment too appalling or sympathetic.
Last Exit jettisoned punctuation, pomp and circumstance in American fiction, and anointed Selby with instant notoriety for his brutal tales of humanity. But he blew his sudden fame and fortune on booze and smack, and eventually fled to Los Angeles, where he spent his last 30 years living off government checks and odd jobs, pumping gas while his work was dissected in nearby ivory towers. There was nothing as a reward. “Only death or survival,” he wrote in 1971’s The Room. After half a century of dying, Selby has finally met death, but in print his scream—and heart—survive.