Hubert Selby Jr: Dissecting the American Dream

Hubert Selby Jr. often compared himself to a pathologist, and he identified his first four novels as a diagnosis of the sickness at the heart of the American Dream. When viewed as a collective, the books paint a particular picture of a spiritual disease ravaging people across all spectrums: age, class, race, gender, religion. While some may classify this disease as addiction, Selby himself would more often refer to it as obsession. To him, obsession is a delusion, a reliance on self-absorbed fantasy which cuts people off from genuine connection with one another and from awareness of one’s reality, leading to a state of suffering. Each of the novels portrays this in a different way.

Last Exit to Brooklyn, a collection of six stories all set in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, depicts people on the fringes of society in 1950s America: thugs, drag queens, prostitutes, homosexuals, ghetto dwellers. These are the people no one cares about, cast off and forgotten, dismissed as being unworthy of the American Dream. They parade through the story like a series of desperate ghosts: tough guy Vinnie as he and his friends beat a man half to death, and share a smoke and a laugh about it later; Georgette, a trans woman lost in a fantasy relationship with Vinnie, quickly working her way to an OD; Tralala, a hyper-competitive hooker and out of control paranoid narcissist who submits to one of the most grotesque gangbangs in the history of literature; Harry Black, an alcoholic, repressed union laborer with gay urges, a violent brute ultimately trampled and crucified for being queer by a gang of similar brutes.

These characters, and the disturbing fates which they meet, populate an apocalyptic world where empathy and compassion have been abandoned like any other waterfront factory. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the novel’s coda, a kind of literary long-take which portrays the many separate hells of those living in a Brooklyn ghetto, an almost Bosch-level scape of screeching indignity. These characters inhabit a world which would just as soon forget them. Their only comforts are their delusions, the fantasies to which they cling in order to find some semblance of happiness. Many of them simply have no emotional tools for genuine connection, instead chasing their illusions into further degradation, discarded by society without even really having a chance. They are born to die.

Selby’s next novel, The Room, leaves behind the multitude of characters from Last Exit, instead focusing on the mind of one person. The unnamed protagonist, jailed for an unspecified crime, takes us through a cavalcade of thoughts and emotions as he stews alone in his isolation cell. His mind tends to flip-flop between two imagined worlds: an extended Capra-esque fantasy where he has been falsely imprisoned and uses his trial to take on the criminal justice system, emerging as an American hero who conquers political hypocrisy; and a truly unsettling series of revenge scenarios which involve increasingly sadistic acts of torture and rape. Memory and fantasy slowly grow indistinguishable from one another, but it becomes clear the narrator suffers from both intense self-hatred and religious guilt, which fuel his masturbatory fantasies of absolution and vengeance. Chaining himself to the past through that guilt, he dwells in a mental prison of his own making, which transforms the physical cell around him into a kind of existential waiting room. Like the characters from Last Exit, he’s forgotten by society, but society is not ultimately to blame for his condition.

The Demon takes this thread and runs with it, diving into a kind of Biblical melodrama. Harry White is a successful, ambitious businessman with a predilection for seducing married women, which he views as an exciting game. As his success grows, so does his urge to woo and conquer, even once he himself is married and a father. He ultimately finds his desire for material success and sex to be unfulfilling, yet is continually plagued by both lust and self-loathing no matter how often he tries to control the situation. Harry tips into bizarre petty thievery and eventually murder, setting his sights on a famous Cardinal of Gandhi-like notoriety who he intends to assassinate during a televised Easter Sunday mass.

Harry White is a perfect storm. His addiction to the possibility of reward, be it a promotion or fucking, leaves him unable to see those things as a means, but always an end. Harry is never able to be thankful for anything in the moment, instead continuing to compulsively pursue gratification for its own sake. Meanwhile, he experiences a vague but intense self-imposed guilt which he vainly attempts to compartmentalize and push away. In one sense, this guilt is very real: the nagging awareness that he is obsessed, and that the obsession is out of his control, and that he is losing more and more of himself to the obsession and will sooner or later be found out.

In another sense, it’s imaginary, a type of religious shame which sees lust as forbidden fruit, and therefore only makes it more desirable. Harry achieves the American Dream in almost every way. He has a high-paying job in Manhattan, a loving wife and children, a big house in Connecticut. He’s done everything that is expected of a man like him. But he knows himself so little that in truth he has almost nothing, devolving into a spiritual black hole. This collision of factors drives him into the arms of his demons, destroying Harry by the end of the novel.

The trick here is that Harry White isn’t really any different from the characters of Last Exit or The Room; he’s merely at the other end of the social spectrum, the Have to the Have-Nots of the previous books. Not only is he the upper class answer to Harry Black, in many ways he’s the narrator of The Room dressed up in a suit and tie but afflicted with the same problems. Neither character is self-aware or present enough to truly make sense of their situations.

They both live in resentment; in Harry’s case, he’s jealous of others’ success at the firm where he works, or raging at his wife for trying to help him. And just as the character from The Room is shackled to the past, Harry is chained to his own shadow and to an addictive cycle of sin and forgiveness. His attempts to run away from his demons, desperately hiding them from his family and his coworkers — because normal, successful people don’t have such problems — only makes his obsessions stronger. Both characters were not raised particularly religious, yet they maintain a generalized, puritanical guilt when it comes to sex. This manifests in different ways as adults, with the narrator of The Room turning a childhood memory of church into a perverse sex fantasy, and Harry developing a borderline satanic hatred of religion as he loses his mind.

As far as The Demon is concerned, the religious imagery seems to be at once sincere and satirical. It’s genuine in the sense of providing a sign of what Harry is missing, not necessarily God but at the very least a surrendering to empathy, selflessness, or some other greater sense of connection. Surrendering control instead of living in paralyzing fear about the lack thereof.

But it also works as a sly critique of organized religion, as Harry’s mind has become so polarized that his mental state is portrayed as a cartoonish, seething cesspool of bilious rage, whereas Cardinal Leterman is almost comically benevolent and pure. This dichotomy partly comes back to the way Christianity creates such conflict through the very concept of sin, and how the promise of eternal salvation plays into the idea of the American Dream and limitless happiness.

However, religion is never explicitly blamed for Harry’s condition, nor is any other external factor. In a clever eschewing of pop psychology, the source of Harry’s obsession and guilt is never clarified; it’s simply there, a treacherous seed waiting to be watered. Like an addict, Harry is never able to admit that he has a problem which controls him, instead relying on a fantasy of masculine willpower to maintain the illusion of self-control. Harry White is Hubert Selby Jr. flipping the script, very openly attacking the American Dream’s preoccupation with success and egotism. (In many ways, The Demon is a precursor to Bret Easton Ellis, who would go one level higher on the social ladder, satirizing those who are born privileged and whose “success” is a forgone conclusion).

If the first three novels form a sentence, Requiem for a Dream is the gruesome punctuation mark. Its main characters — Harry Goldfarb, his mother Sara, his girlfriend Marion Silver, and his best friend Tyrone Love — are all drug addicts. In the case of Harry, Tyrone, and Marion, their vice is heroin. Meanwhile, Sara Goldfarb, a lonely elderly widow who spends the majority of her time watching soap operas and eating chocolate, becomes addicted to diet pills. All four characters are on a descent into Hell, which they vigorously refuse to acknowledge.

However, though the novel and its subsequent film adaptation are often considered a story about the perils of drug abuse, Requiem for a Dream is far from some extended DARE ad. At the book’s core, drugs are not the real focus, but a mechanism to explore a larger idea.

(Of course, this is not to suggest that drugs aren’t a significant piece of the story. Selby himself was a heroin addict for several years and an alcoholic for many more, and that experience with addiction clearly fuels the book. But he was also adamantly against the War on Drugs, and resisted the interpretation that he was merely preaching an anti-drug message. Though where drugs are involved, Requiem doesn’t exclusively concern itself with the illegal variety, either, as it also touches upon the very relevant issue of doctors who overprescribe, be it painkillers, uppers, or antidepressants).

Indeed, drugs are the catalyst here, but they remain a symptom of the disease as much as they are part of the problem itself. The characters may be addicted to various substances, but more notably, they are trapped in their own self-assembled delusions. Harry and Tyrone have convinced themselves they’ll score and sell a pound of pure smack, and will face a carefree life thereafter. Marion dreams of being an artist and opening a coffee shop with Harry. Sara is consumed with fantasies of being thin and fabulous and appearing on a TV game show. All of them live in the future, not the present, so they do nothing in their current lives to make their fantasies a reality.

Instead, they fill the holes in their existence with various forms of immediate gratification — television, heroin, coffee, even love — which in turn only feeds the beast further, creating an even stronger dependence on those fantasies and an even greater void to fill. They must numb the pain of stagnation. Sara in particular demonstrates that this is much more than a story about drugs or dope fiends: she relies on numerous obsessions to distract from the reality of her life, even creating an imaginary version of Harry who is a successful businessman starting a family, as opposed to a small-time drug dealer that keeps locking her in a closet and pawning her TV set.

All four characters are unable to face themselves or their circumstances, and they take refuge in the delusion that one day, everything will magically work itself out. (“In the end, it’s all nice,” Sara reminds her long-deceased husband Seymour). By the final stretch of the story, they are lost and weakened to the point of being finished off by an uncaring, corrupt world which is all but happy to mercilessly grind them to pieces.

Addiction in Requiem for a Dream is clearly a stand-in for addiction to the American Dream . . . the very idea that if we have enough money and success and popularity and things things things, we will be satisfied. But, as with either consumerism or chemical addiction, the need to consume is never truly sated. Selby offers a terrifying depiction of the manner in which people waste their lives by pursuing distractions, ultimately tottering off the edge of a cliff. This is where the story draws its haunting power. Though many will know the hell of addiction, many more won’t. Yet, the majority of us can identify with that feeling of wasted time, of not being present, and the fear of looking back and realizing that life went largely unlived.

The ending of the novel, where Harry, Marion, Tyrone and Sara have been rendered phantoms wandering through the wreckage of their lives, proves so unsettling because these are people who have abandoned their dreams and sold them for unattainable fantasies. They’ve turned gold into lead, reduced to whipped and catatonic automatons that either cleave to emptiness or fall in line. Despite all the supposed gritty realism, the book offers an almost dystopian sci-fi vision of enslavement. Requiem for a Dream is a tale of obsession and illusion and the many forms they take, addiction or otherwise.

Requiem reflects the diverse backgrounds of Selby’s previous three books: Harry and Sara are middle-class Jews from the Bronx, Tyrone is black and grew up in poverty, and Marion is from a wealthy New York family. None are immune to the disease of the Dream, and they remain in a state of protracted suffering by the story’s conclusion. Harry develops a gangrenous arm that has to be amputated. Sara winds up in a psych ward where she’s misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, and eventually zombified by unnecessary shock treatment and medications. Marion submits to progressively debasing sex acts in order to score. And Tyrone ends the novel in the clutches of racist Southern cops, enduring a humiliating withdrawal in jail. Save for Tyrone, for whom there is a potential glimmer of an awakening, the book ends with no hope. No catharsis. Just the sensation of life & time wasted and now mired in the considerable fallout.

All four novels reflect different iterations of the American Dream. The characters of Last Exit to Brooklyn populate an urban wasteland where the only sense of purpose is to fantasize about a day when their lives will matter. Georgette wants Shakespearean romance. Tralala demands to be the most respected, feared and desired hooker in her neighborhood. Harry Black wants to be a big-shot union man. Meanwhile, The Room features a person lost in a mental labyrinth of justice and revenge, neither of them attainable but both American as apple pie in their presentation. And The Demon depicts Harry White’s success not as a triumph but as a trigger for his own madness. In the novel’s final moment, he plunges from a ferry into the harbor and drowns, only becoming fully conscious about his existence and his actions right before the darkness of death swallows him.

Following his first four books, Selby only published intermittently, but he attempted to explore beyond the darkness instead of continuing to dissect it. The titular story of his short fiction collection Song of the Silent Snow represents a conscious reversal of the scenario depicted in The Demon. Here, a character very similar to Harry White experiences a Zen-like moment of transcendence, and turns his back on destruction. Continuing that idea, The Willow Tree represents Selby’s attempt at reaching the light, dealing with letting go of hatred and anger, both as a means of survival and spiritual redemption.

Yet Selby couldn’t quite stay away from the demons. His final novel, Waiting Period, acts as a sort of black comic return to the subject matter of The Room, this time narrated strictly in first person (as opposed to the mix of first and highly-subjective third used in his prior work). In this instance, instead of collapsing inwardly with self-hatred, the narrator becomes a divinely-inspired murderer who punishes injustice, and in the process delivers hilarious monologues that range from gleeful to pathetic as he attempts to excuse his actions. In this story, finding a sense of purpose proves to be even more dangerous than meaninglessness.

Selby is sometimes accused of being a hysterical moralizer, particularly given the exaggerated scenarios of his novels and the occasional Bible quotes used as epigraphs. But to construe these as didactic moral lessons is to miss the point. Selby specifically probes the mind’s pitfalls, and the derangement of the human ego when it has no reference point other than itself. His characters don’t meet destructive ends because they broke the law or the Ten Commandments, but because they lose themselves pursuing poison in place of anything truly nourishing on an existential level. Selby’s novels are the interior lives of his subjects turned into outer reality, and stand as intense, vivid, unflinching depictions of people who will never really know themselves.

His portrait of the American Dream is ultimately as a form of bondage, a nightmarish mirage using guilt, fear, and desire to ensnare our souls, making us dependent on our obsessions. A surefire formula for destruction.

But don’t worry. In the end, it’s all nice.