Herbert Selby, Jr., took a hard road to becoming a professional writer. The son of a Kentucky coal miner, “Cubby” grew up in Brooklyn and at the age of 15 decided to follow in his old man’s footsteps by joining the merchant marines. While aboard a cattle ship, bringing beef to soldiers in Korea, bovine tuberculosis broke out among the herd. Selby was among the group charged with shoving the diseased cows into the sea to drown. From the cows, he contracted the disease. Doctors were forced to remove several ribs to completely remove a one collapsed lung and partially remove the second. The operation left him weak and unable to find work, bedridden for long periods of time. To combat the constant pain, Selby became addicted to morphine and heroin. Doctors practically delighted in informing him that his days on Earth were numbered. Fearing only a wasted life, Selby (famously) said to himself, “I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.” Which is how a career output of grim, grimy and despairingly realistic novels came about.
It’s a toss-up whether his most famous—or infamous—novel is Requiem for a Dream or Last Exit to Brooklyn. Modern audiences are, of course, more familiar with the former due to the Academy Award nominations heaped upon Darren Aronofsky’s intelligent film adaptation. Older readers would argue for Last Exit due to its controversial and unflinching look at working class characters living in a “Brooklyn of the soul”. But few would argue the novel’s fame based on its film version, however, if it weren’t for an infamous closing scene involving Jennifer Jason Leigh. When it was released in 1989, Uli Edel’s adaptation of Last Exit to Brooklyn was met with mixed reviews from critics and audiences. Selby fans weren’t entirely satisfied but couldn’t quite say why. Those unfamiliar with the novel were turned off by the unrelenting no-way-outness. But the years have been kind to the movie and it stands up well beside the novel, which continues to be read—and continues to outrage—to this day.
Set against a violent labor strike, the narrative about life and lowlife in 1950’s Brooklyn winds between union big-shot Harry (Stephen Lang) involved in a clandestine affair with a drag queen (Alexis Arquette), an average working man whose oldest daughter is pregnant, and a local prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose livelihood depends on rolling johns with her pimp boyfriend. All of these myriad characters are searching for a better life, preferably outside the Borough, but have no idea how to reach that goal, or, really, what it actually means. Harry enjoys being a big man, using union expense money to travel and dine in style, entertaining the neighborhood users around him he believes to be his friends. Tralala wants to be treated like a lady but has no understanding of what that entails. Other characters are just trying to get through from one day to the next while prioritizing their lives as family, Union and God, never repeating the order.
Never falling short of a fascinating drama, Last Exit to Brooklyn is almost unbearably bleak from start to finish. Desmond Nakano (American Me, Black Moon Rising) does a good job of weaving the five unconnected stories of the novel into one episodic narrative and doesn’t skimp on the emotion. While we come to understand the characters, there are few that are actually likable and even fewer that escape without tragedy. The famous “gang-rape” scene that occurs near the end, as Tralala surrenders to the brutality and futility of her life, is as heartbreaking as the novel’s passage, and gives the movie its infamy among the “hip” film scholars. Alexis Arquette’s portrayal of “Georgette” (the title character of the story “The Queen is Dead”) comes off primarily cartoony, but his character’s humanity and vulnerability peeks through at subtle moments. Lang’s Harry seems to fall the farthest, as he’s the only one who seems to have reached any height to begin with. Of the novel’s characters, Harry is the one changed most liberally—a heavyset loser on paper who is a big man only in his own mind is given moments of literal triumph here and there, as well as genuine respect from others in the Union. This gives his descent a tragic inevitability.
Filled with beautiful long takes and tracking shots, Udel keeps the story moving and manages to sneak in small triumphant moments—particularly Tralala accidentally leading a parade down the street. At times it feels overlong but the tension is always palpable. Credit should truly go to the script that stays close to Selby’s writing—they may not be nice people, but they feel like real people.
As much as it tries, however, the movie does not deliver the same emotional punch as Selby’s acclaimed novel, nor could it. If ever there was an argument pointing out the difference of the two mediums, it lies here. Selby’s prose had a raw power; he rarely paused in the midst of paragraphs for punctuation beyond a slash—never an apostrophe (on his typewriter, an apostrophe required two key strokes)—and idiomatic dialogue was presented along with action in near stream-of-consciousness rants. His energy could be felt on the page. The movie has a more languid pace. It captures much of the novel’s impotent rage and hopelessness, but it excels in presenting the few quiet moments, the anguish is well-represented. But whether it’s the visual distillation of the time-period that makes it all seem so quaint or some other malfunction, the movie almost makes you forget that it’s based on a novel that was once at the center of a celebrated obscenity trial in the U.K. and continues to wind up on “Banned Books” library lists. The movie presents itself as a period piece, and thereby gives the audience permission to distance itself. It’s a beautiful period piece but one nonetheless, and it drives home the limitation of adaptive medium.
As a side note, the film adaptation was actually a personal low point for none other than cartoonist Ralph Bakshi, who dreamed of bringing the stories to life at one time or another in either animated or live-action format. He notoriously called Udel’s film “like a hot dog without mustard”.
Unlike the novel, the movie is hard to come by. Official DVD releases go in and out of print fairly often. There is a two-disk PAL edition available off of Amazon that seems packed with extras. It is definitely worth hunting down, but I wouldn’t recommend making it the headliner of your next movie party. Unless suicide is also on the menu. Once you’re done, you might want to take a look at a Selby documentary called It/ll Be Better Tomorrow, in which he’s remembered by contemporaries like Richard Price and Lou Reed—but not, unsurprisingly, Bakshi.