“You don’t find much physical description in my work,” Hubert Selby, Jr., once told an interviewer. “I don’t describe the streets too much or anything else.” And that’s true: because there’s so little physical description, let alone actual street names references, people still argue about whether Last Exit to Brooklyn is set in Red Hook or Sunset Park. (N.B. It’s the latter! Except for the final story.) One exception were his short stories, collected in 1986’s Song of the Silent Snow, out of print like most Selby books but available at reasonable prices from secondhand sellers. It’s among his best books, and for a Bay Ridge resident, it’s required reading.
That’s because so many of the stories are set in the neighborhood, where Selby was born, grew up and lived into young adulthood. Sometimes the setting is merely implied; “Indian Summer,” for example, in which a little girl tries to get her father to take her to the playground on a Sunday afternoon, feels like it could be set in the park behind Fort Hamilton High School, as it involves a football field right next to a playground. But that’s just the impression I get.
Many of the other stories, however, are specifically, inarguably set in Bay Ridge. “Double Feature,” for example, is mostly set in the balcony of the old Bay Ridge Theatre, on 72nd Street and Third Avenue, across the street from where the Selby family once lived, according to the 1940 census (when Selby, Jr., was 11-years-old): 7115 Third Avenue. The story offers brief but fascinating descriptions of moving through the building’s interior, foreign for most of us, who didn’t get a chance to experience the movie palace before it shuttered in the early 1960s, from the aisle seat on the last row of the balcony, where the two guys empty a few bottles of wine while sitting through a movie, to the manager’s office, where they wind up when they make a drunken scene. That is, you get a sense you can’t quite get from photographs of what it would have been like actually to use this historic space.
The story ends with the pair ejected from the building by a slaphappy police officer.
They told Chubby to go up to 4th Avenue and Harry down to Ridge Boulevard. And if you give anybody any more trouble we/ll split your skulls open.
Harry turned when he reached Ridge Boulevard and staggered over to the school steps and sat down. [PS 102-!] He rested his head on his hands then noticed the small smear of blood on his palm. He couldnt taste it, but it must be real. But it didnt make any sort of sense. There wasnt any fight. Just laughing. We werent even drunk . . . How? There wasnt even a beginning to go back to. I dont even know what time it is . . . [Ellipses Selby’s]
The two finest local stories in the collection are “Liebesnacht” and “Puberty.” No one has captured the aimless, booze-soaked and violence-clouded lives of local young men like Selby does in “Liebesnacht.” (He only sort of hints at it in “Double Feature,” especially in that despondent ending.) For me, it’s the definitive piece of Bay Ridge literature, because it so closely describes the neighborhood as I’ve often experienced it—fun and horrifying, joyful and sad, inebriated, imperfect and claimable. Read it here.
It opens with Harry—all Selby’s protagonists are named Harry—at home, fighting with his girlfriend over the phone, then at the bar, commiserating with the fellas, including Mikey no legs, so called for his barrel chest. “He wasnt exceptionally violent or quiet,” Selby writes, “just sort of unobtrusively there, except when he got crazy drunk.” Unfortunately on this night, Mikey is crazy drunk and attacks Wally, his brother, whom he idolizes; he breaks Wally’s hand, goes home and passes out, wakes up unremembering, starts drinking at the bar again, reconnects with his brother, who’s just back from the hospital with a cast, is told what he did, and feels his heart break. The gang of guys go for a walk and Mike tries to make it up to Wally while they’re passing through a park (I’d guess this is Leif Ericson, because they “leav[e] the avenue and walk…along the path in the park area bordering the parkway”) and see a young couple.
Mike continued watching them then suddenly turned and looked around and ran to the fence and found an old, splintered piece of 2 x 4, and holding it like a club he walked toward the young couple and as he passed the guys he told Wally, Comeon, youre gonna get laid—and continued down the slope toward the couple. Wally and the others stood still for a moment, Mikes words not registering until they heard him yell at them—COMEON, IM GONNA GETYA LAID WALLY—the couple stopping and turning and looking at Mike as he descended on them waving the 2 x 4—Ya betta get outta here asshole unless ya wanna get ya head bashed in. Were gonna fuck the ass off that cunt—and Mike laughed a sick laugh and the guy stepped forward in front of the girl and started looking around for a way to run when he noticed the other guys running toward them, screaming, MIKE! MIKE! ITS WALLY! Comeon Wally, Im gonna get ya fucked—and the girl started screaming and her boyfriend pushed her and told her to run but she could only hold on to him and scream as Mike stood in front of him waving the 2 x 4 and a couple of guys came up behind him and grabbed the club and a guy with a cast on his hand stood in front of the guy with the club saying something and someone else came over and told him to take his girl and beat it, and the guy put his arms around the trembling girl and they trotted then ran up the slope to the path and to the street and Wally continued to try to reason with Mike who seriously wanted to get a piece of ass for his brother, I mean, what the fuck Wally, it’ll take your mind off ya hand, right? and Wally nodded and did his best to smile as the others stood nervously around wondering if the cops would be there soon and if they would all suddenly end up in the fuckin slammer and wanting very much to get the fuckin hell outta there but didnt want to leave their friends so they stayed and Wally told Mike that he was tired, Its late Mike. I dont feel like gettin laid, okay? But she was a real doll Wally. She probably give ya a good blow job. Yeah, yeah, Mike, but not now, okay? Im fuckin beat Mike an Im tired of all this fuckin shit, ya hear me—his voice getting louder and angrier—I just want to go fuckin home and sleep and forget about this whole fuckin night—Mike nodding his head, Okay, okay, Wally, I didnt mean nothin…
The story ends on the 69th Street Pier, back with Harry, alone, remembering good times gone by, getting caught up anew in his girlfriend problems. (It’s quoted a little bit here.) He’s like a lot of Selby heroes—he drinks too much, and he isn’t happy.
Selby chronicles how someone starts toward such incurable unhappiness, the one that starts them to drinking, in “Puberty.” When I first read this story, it felt like my soul had given virgin birth to it. Not only are Selby’s descriptions of adolescence’s unsourceable sadness so honest and familiar and exquisite, but he sets them on the very streets on which I too once felt such preteen melancholy. It starts up the block from the playground at PS 102, which Selby attended, around the corner from where the author lived when he was puberty-age; the hero is bouncing a ball on Third Avenue, deliberately not joining his friends down the block for reasons he can’t understand or explain. So he walks north on Third Avenue, and Selby re-creates the unfamiliar life of these familiar streets.
The avenue was crowded with the usual weekend shoppers rushing from store to store, testing fruits and vegetables, asking questions, stopping to talk with each other, young children wiggling in strollers and tugging at arms … and the trolleys, trucks and cars made the same accustomed noises. Even the little old Italian man with the pushcart of snails was there today with a group of kids standing around watching and laughing as the snails crawled on the sides of the pushcart, the little vendor picking them up and dropping them back into the baskets. The boy ignored a call from one of the kids and continued walking through the crowd, puzzled by the strange feeling that seemed to be repsonsible for his being on the avenue instead of the schoolyard, and not watching, as he had always joyfully done, the snails and the way the vendor plucked them off the sides of the cart and twirled his gigantic mustache after dropping them in the baskets. For the first time in all the years he had been fascinated by the man and his pushcart he didnt wonder if his mustache smelled of snails. [Ellipsis Selby’s]
So the boy turns onto 69th Street, and stops at the firehouse, where the firemen are washing and testing equipment. (Some memory of this block’s firehouse history still stands, across the street at 257 Bay Ridge Avenue, with ladder and engine companies marked on the keystones of each arched window, though now that building is used as the Gateway City Church and Academy.) But he keeps walking, first to Bliss Park via Colonial, where he watches a fella eat lightbulbs, then down to the shore, where he tries to re-create (but can’t) the joy he once experienced feeling the spray of the Narrows on his face; then it’s back up to Third Avenue and over to his home there. But at the moment he passes the fire station without stopping to watch the spectacle, Selby writes:
He looked around and nothing was different and that puzzled him. Something within him demanded that the street, the buildings, the people be different, yet they were all the same but now he lacked identity with them. The footprints he had left on these streets all the thousands of times he had walked them were gone, they no longer felt like his streets, yet he continued to wander through them seemingly seeking something without the slightest idea what it might be, not knowing for sure if he was looking for something or really trying to get away. He felt the need for companionship yet was driven to aloneness, unable to ask why, nor sure that there was a question to ask, wandering through the suffocating point in time where the old is left behind before the new is even known to exist; that point where even memories cannot be evoked, only vaguely felt without comfort.
If anyone ever tries to tell you Selby wasn’t all that great, or all that local, you just show them that paragraph.