HUBERT SELBY, JR.
by Laura Picard
Hubert Selby, author of hallowed works like Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream, cheated death for 50 years or more. The thought of his own last exit was inconceivable.
For those who knew Selby only through his novels, it may be hard to reconcile the chronicler of urban tragedy with the writing professor nicknamed Cubby, a handle he adopted in his youth (Hubert wasn't the safest name to have in the Brooklyn hood where he grew up). But he was both. Trailing his ever-present oxygen tank through the USC halls, he was mentor, mascot and living legend rolled into one. He'd taught there for 20 years. First on two legs, then on a cane. Then, in his last year, in and out of the hospital and strapped to a portable oxygen tank. Nothing slowed him down.
"He loved teaching in Professional Writing," says Jim Ragan, head of the Writer's Program and a close friend of the late author, "as opposed to the English Department. Because he loved the profession of writing; that was what was important to him, ultimately. Not degrees. Not being studied or academic. But that you write, and that you live."
Self-taught in the art of self-preservation, Selby believed in the power of personal experience and the courage to write about it. It had saved his own life more than once. Diagnosed in 1950 with turberculosis at the age of 18, Selby's treatment cost him the removal of several ribs, part of one lung and the collapse of the other. His doctors predicted he had only a few years to live. But he was determined to leave his mark, and Last Exit to Brooklyn was the phenomenal result. Years passed between that tyro debut and his next work; chronic pain and illness sunk Selby into alchoholism and addiction. But, after a hard-won sobriety, he went on to produce some of the greatest works of his career, including The Room, The Demon, and Requiem for a Dream.
No one who has read a Selby book has been left unchanged by the experience. He helped pioneer stream-of-consciouness writing in the '50s and '60s, putting a bullet in the Queen's English while capturing the speed of emotion and thought on the page. It's a style born of painstaking craftsmanship. Only the best succeed at it. And it's a tribute to Selby's artistry that after the first page you don't notice it. But it's Selby's deep humanism, his searing love for the broken-down outcasts of his tales, that leaves the most memorable mark. And it is this for which he's most justly celebrated.
He may have experienced a standing ovation at Cannes for Darren Aronofsky's lauded film version of Requiem for a Dream, may have endlessly appeared in articles and anthologies, but that doesn't mean America treats its literary treasures -- or literature -- with respect. Had Selby lived in France, where he was widely recognized, he would have enjoyed the life writers dream of. But he was quintessentially American, and so was his literary turf. He chose to live in it and write of it. He had to make a living.
One day in the early '80s, Ragan got a call out of the blue. "This guy calls and says, 'Hi, this is Cubby Selby, and I wondered if I could come teach a class in your program?' So I said what I always say, that our faculty was full but if he wished to apply for a position he should submit a resume for review ... and then the light went on. I said, 'Wait a minute. Not Hubert Selby, Jr.?' He said yes, and I said 'You start this Spring.' I didn't have room in the budget! I paid him out of my own salary that first term. Happily. Because I knew we'd gotten one of the giants."
The giant continued to teach through endless medical intercession, his health problems chronic, insoluble. Yet he demanded to have students' work delivered to him in the hospital.
"He was nothing but courage," says Ragan. "That's what he embodied to me. What he wrote about, but also getting around on that cane and carrrying his oxygen tank, never missing a class. Nothing but courage."