Waiting Period, by Hubert Selby Jr. Marion Boyers Publishers Ltd. 155 pages. $22.95
Remember Hubert Selby? Most doubtless still recognize the names of Saul Bellow, John Cheever, C.P. Snow, Edna O'Brien, Ken Kesey, Anthony Powell and Gore Vidal, whose publications of the year 1964 shared the best-seller lists with Selby's first novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. The book received added attention for being the subject of an obscenity prosecution. In 1989, the film of the same name won huge critical acclaim and box-office success, but little interest in the writer has continued beyond cult circles. Now, nearly four decades after Last Exit, a new Selby novel appears.
Not that Selby has been unproductive during the interim, though his work, as he describes in interviews, has perennially lagged between fastidiousness and ill health. A high school dropout, at death's door from corrosive lung disease since the age of 18, he could never hold a steady job and self-developed his unique writing style through protracted periods of despair and disability -- "writing to stay alive."
Following Last Exit is The Room (1972), a Kafkaesque novel on the sadistic fantasies of a petty criminal; The Demon (1976) about an upper-class businessman sexually addicted to weird women; Requiem for a Dream (1978), turned in 2000 into a movie starring Ellen Burstyn as the Coney Island mother of a dope fiend, who becomes addicted from diet pills taken to fulfill the illusion that she is to appear on a TV game show; Song of the Silent Snow (1987), a collection of 15 unrelated short stories featuring peculiar men, all named Harry, as are most of Selby's male protagonists; The Willow Tree (1999) a bleak tale of racist hate and redemption.
Selby works are unrelentingly shrouded in darkness. The language is rough, words spell out dialectually: whattayasay? Paragraphs run on: "I always write by ear." The imagery is bizarre, the characters crude and conscience free. Selby rarely describes places or faces, "I'm not concerned with the outside." There is plenty of kinky sex, but virtually no eroticism.
Selby enthusiasts say things like: "This book [The Room] has been the worst experience of my life. I would highly recommend it."
Will Waiting Period bring Selby back into the literary forefront? Certainly not for the same shocking realism that made Last Exit a hit.
Even Selby's stalwart admirers may find the current theme overly upbeat. Presented in the first person, the lone character in Waiting Period vacillates between suicidal depression and exhilarating murder. The man has no name, not even Harry. The scenes could be anywhere USA. There is no sex. There isn't even any gross violence.
The would-be suicide spends indecisive hours with the tinny tasting barrel of a loaded .357 thrust down his throat. Switching to disingenuous murderer, "now I know who needs killing, and it's not me," he goes after a nay-stamping bureaucrat from the Veterans Administration; a Ku Kluxer and the jurors who wantonly acquitted him of killing two black doctors, some Mafioso. These are neatly dispatched with carefully cultured (instructions from the Internet) droplets of E.coli sneaked into their "cokcola."
Sounds like there might be, but there really is no plot or resolution.
Just a delightful tour de force for the perverse few who enjoy the macabre swathed in well-crafted satire with a hint of socially redeeming backlash.
Elsbeth L. Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after 18 years as a judge trying serious criminal cases, many of them murder. As a lawyer, Bothe represented a number of death row inmates. Her crime book collection includes a rare copy of Taylor's Medical Jurisprudence (1861), and she also collects skull and skeleton artifacts