I immediately get suspicious whenever a book or a movie or a TV show is lauded as an accurate depiction of anything. This comes from years of seeing the frequently overwhelming grind of the teaching profession inaccurately compared to schmaltzy, saccharine hooey like Dead Poets Society or Freedom Writers or Mr. Holland’s Opus. They’re all undeniably effective as drama, but they might as well feature a classroom full of unicorns for how realistically they depict the classroom. And when we take these movies as reflections of real life, it makes sense that the public wants to know why their school and their teachers can’t just snap their fingers and solve all the problems of the world in less than 120 minutes. If I had a screenwriter penning all the dialogue in my class each day, I’d look pretty awesome, too, and each class would feature a stirring montage backed by sweeping orchestration. This is one reason why Alexander Payne’s Election is the most accurate version of high school ever committed to celluloid (thanks due, of course, to the Tom Perotta novel on which it’s based). Payne isn’t afraid to admit that teachers can be both well-intentioned and petty, inspiring and manipulative. I knew lots of teachers like Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, and in some of my worst moments I can even relate to him.
I knew the hype surrounding Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, first published in 1964, and my reality radar was already pinging. The cover blurbs attest to its verisimilitude, promising it to be a depiction of “the fierce, primal rage seething in America’s cities.” I love it when a book shows me things I’ve never seen – and this sheltered, Ohio-born coward certainly isn’t on a first-name basis with the mean streets of New York City – but once again I wondered: Just how realistic should I consider Selby’s version of Brooklyn to be?
After reading it, I’m still not sure. There’s no doubting its power, that’s for sure. It’s a gut punch of a book, half a dozen loosely-connected stories that feature a collection of profoundly unlikable characters doing generally horrible things to each other. They hang out at the local diner, they get into fights, and – oh yeah – they beat their wives, over and over and over again. There’s an argument to be made that Selby’s book is unrepentantly anti-woman, but the problem I have with that characterization is that the men doing the beating are clearly meant to be seen as despicable lowlifes. Their behavior isn’t punished, but it certainly isn’t valorized, and at no point do we (or at least did I) ever feel that we’re meant to admire Vinnie or Mike or Abe or any of the mob who brutally beat and gang-rape Tralala in one of the book’s centerpiece stories.
And then there’s Harry. The main character in “Strike,” he’s simultaneously the most unlikable and most sympathetic of characters. A union worker who basically does nothing but cause problems for management, he’s tasked with organizing and running a months-long strike. At the start, there’s no way to like Harry. He’s lazy, he’s verbally and physically abusive toward his wife, and he is, above all, chronically angry. Once the strike starts he looks like every recent Fox News union caricature: barely working and abusing his privileges by charging the union for food and drink after hours. He buys friendship from the neighborhood ne’er-do-wells, inviting them to enjoy the free food while tiresomely regaling them with stories of all the (not very) difficult work he’s doing.
I know, I know: “He’s also sympathetic, you say?” He is (and spoiler alert ahead). During one of these evenings with the local guys, Harry becomes infatuated with Georgette, a neighborhood drag queen. He doesn’t question the realization that he’s a closeted homosexual, and that this likely has everything to do with his animosity toward his wife. He experiences a few moments of reservation at Mary’s, a Brooklyn gay bar, but as soon as he overcomes these he ardently pursues a series of relationships with an assortment of drag queens. It’s in these moments that Harry is truly, finally, happy. Content, even. And in this way,despite all its misogynistic undercurrents, Last Exit to Brooklyn is also decidedly pro-gay. If anything, the drag queens are the most positive characters in the book, standing out in stark contrast to the bullies and creeps that populate the stories.
It is, I have to admit, a little concerning how Selby undercuts this progressive stance by later equating homosexuality with pedophilia at the end of “Strike.” I know we’re supposed to see Harry as a broken man, one thoroughly beyond redemption, and I also try to remember that we now know more about homosexuality than Selby did in 1964, including the fact that there’s no link between homosexuality and pedophilia. And of course we also see Harry get his comeuppance at the end of the story. But it’s hard to know how to feel.
And that pretty much sums up my opinion of Last Exit to Brooklyn as a whole. Is all the hype about its supposed reality accurate? Do I read this as an accurate reflection of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/early 1960s, with Selby simply acting as a reporter? Is the misogyny and brutality (which I have to admit occasionally reads as pretty cartoony) just Selby telling it like it was? In either case, I’m not sure I can recommend the book. If it’s just stylized awfulness, it doesn’t really work as satisfying fiction, and if it’s truly a realistic depiction of Brooklyn life, it’s almost too disturbing to contemplate.
XTC – Oranges & Lemons (1989)