Thursday, August 09, 2007

Hubert Selby Jr: It/ll be Better Tomorrow

Say what you will about him, there are at least three real contributions to my life that Henry Rollins has made, over and above that of his music (which I have enjoyed many times - Black Flag were probably my second musical love - after the Who at age 13...):

1. Turning me on to the Stooges' Fun House and the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat in a very early (1982?) article in Spin magazine. I was 14 and living in the suburbs, having heard of neither band (tho' I think I knew who Iggy Pop was at that point). It changed my listening forever and prepared me for much that was to come.

2. (For better or for worse - ask my friends): Vastly broadening my comfort about talking about masturbation. Hell, he may have even IMPROVED my masturbation, by lessening any leftover Catholic guilts about it through his own openness. I keep sending him letters of thanks, in fact, with a few stories of my own - like the one about how, at age 12, my not wanting to confess to a priest what I was doing in the bathroom for so long probably saved me from a Catholic adulthood, to say nothin' of the possibility of bein' raped by a MIB - but, heh, he never writes back.

3. Turning me on to the novels of Hubert Selby Jr. I don't think I would be quite the same person without having read the immensely painful, but immensely spiritually rewarding, book, Last Exit to Brooklyn, when I was a teen. It's up there with the films of John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman, for me, for providing a painfully honest, spiritually serious, questing and passionate take on the human condition, but it does so while resiliently maintaining a lower class perspective, which literature is so generally lacking. One of the people in this documentary I'm watching on Selby - an excellent little film that I highly recommend, called It/ll Be Better Tomorrow; official site here -- talks about Selby's language being the equivalent of the music of Charlie Parker, but anyone who REALLY knows his jazz knows that this is Albert Ayler territory. There are screams of love, pain, ecstacy, sorrow and need from the very depths of the human soul. Except it hurts a lot more than Ayler, noisy as he may get; Ayler's story is sadder, but his music is more rapturous, easier to take. It affirms life in joy; Selby affirms life in tears. In any event: the man deserves great respect.

Anyhow, I wanted to tell y'all about this anecdote from the DVD I'm watching. Selby's novels - especially Last Exit, written in the 1950's - were at times called obscene, because they frankly depict sexual activity (and drug use and violence and homosexuality/transsexualism, and, of course, deep human suffering) and because they have plentiful profanity. The novels are so aware of the pain of the characters that, for all of this, one is more likely to think of Christ's compassion for Magdalen than of pornography, tho'. Even I - a man who has, at times, "entertained himself" ala Rollins with the works of Bataille and de Sade - cannot imagine anyone ready Selby salaciously, whatever controversies his books may once have generated.

That's just the build up to the anecdote, tho': despite all this, one of the various writers interviewed for the film, Jerry Stahl, I believe, tells that when he first met Selby, he confessed that it was strange meeting him, since Selby was "the first writer I ever jerked off to." Selby apparently was taken aback and remarked, "You're sicker than I thought." Then - as Stahl tells it - Selby's voice raised in curiosity: "What part?"

One thing, tho' - don't believe the highfalutin' book critic in the film who tells you, like he thinks he KNOWS sumfin, that the irregular line lengths on Selby's page, where paragraphs stop and start irregularly, are indicative of the pauses between paragraphs. Obvious bullshit, I'm sure - even tho' I'm merely arrivin' at my own deduction here, I would bet dinars to dogshit that it's the correct one: remember that Selby used a MANUAL TYPEWRITER - observe his comments on apostrophes vs. slashes, also in the film, which center on this fact - and that the fastest and easiest way - and certainly the most hands-on way - to drop from one paragraph to another on a manual, rather than hitting the return key, would be to grab the fuckin' wheel at the side of the machine and crank it. I am absolutely positive that this is the method we're seeing at work; pauses my ass, this is sheer impatient pragmatism to get the stuff onto the page as quickly and purely as possible, and damn all the rest of that other meaningless shit.

Anyhow, this is a great documentary - even if you don't know the work of Hubert Selby Jr (and please don't judge it by exposure to any movies you may have seen; neither are very good, tho' Requiem is probably the better).

Post-script: I wonder if Chris Walter has read the book of Selby's stories I gave him? I really, really, really want Chris Walter to read Hubert Selby. Maybe he's the kind of guy, tho', who if you bugged him would dig in his heels? If I were a praying man, I think, I'd be down on my knees for this'un.

Post-script two: I wonder if Oprah is literate enough to have asked Cormac McCarthy what he thought of Selby? I haven't tracked down that fuckin' interview. One o' the Pulp Fiction guys sez it's on Youtube somewhere, but I really don't wanna see it. I mean, cripes, folks - McCarthy gives ONE SINGLE LONE FUCKIN' INTERVIEW post-success and it's with OPRAH? Fuck it.

Post-script three: and, uh, thanks, Henry.

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