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Literature / Last Exit to Brooklyn

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The debut novel of Hubert Selby Jr, Last Exit to Brooklyn met with controversy for its content and language when first published in 1964. A stream-of-consciousness account of the lives of various drug addicts, homosexuals, prostitutes, and petty criminals in the industrial Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods of Sunset Park and Red Hook, the novel spares no detail in its explicit descriptions of drug use, sexual activity, and extreme violence.

The novel consists of six titled sections, all focusing on the lives of several interconnected characters. Another Day Another Dollar follows a gang of violent and depraved street thugs as they hunt for victims, cash, cheap thrills, booze, and sex; The Queen is Dead portrays the short, troubled life of a transgender drug addict desperate for the attention and affection of a street thug; And Baby Makes Three depicts the hasty marriage and baby christening of a young couple who conceive out of wedlock; Tralala is the story of a prostitute whose MO is to let her pimps beat and rob her clients; Strike—the longest section—is about the downfall of Harry Black, a low-ranking but corrupt and power-hungry union official who's also a closeted homosexual; and Landsend presents a day in the life of a housing project's residents.

It was adapted into a 1989 film of the same name directed by Uli Edel, with Stephen Lang in the role of shop steward Harry Black and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the streetwalker Tralala.

This book provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Expansion: The relatively short chapter "And Baby Makes Three" is a major subplot in the film. The baby's grandfather, barely mentioned in the story, is one of the main characters in the film, where he's played by Burt Young (in contrast, the book's final chapter, Land's End about the residents of a public housing project, doesn't appear in the film at all).
  • Adaptational Heroism: In the film, Harry fights bravely during the strike even though he shows up late, as opposed to his book counterpart who stays on the sidelines.
  • Adaptational Sympathy: Several of the characters are somewhat more likable in the film adaptation:
    • In the novel, Tralala is coarse, violent, and completely amoral. The film portrays her in this way initially, but later shows her vulnerable side, veering into Hooker with a Heart of Gold in Tralala's final scene with Spook.
    • In the novel, Harry Black is physically and verbally abusive towards his wife. The film's Harry is never shown to be abusive, he simply tries to ignore her as he carries on his homosexual affairs in secret.
  • Armoured Closet Gay: Harry is a blowhard who acts tough and macho (including frequent boasts of non-existent sexual conquests with women) in order to hide his homosexuality. He's also married to a woman whom he loathes and finds physically repulsive.
  • Asshole Victim: Neither Harry nor Tralala have any redeeming personal qualities, so it's difficult to have much pity for them when they meet their bloody ends.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Harry Black and his wife are an especially bleak example. Because of Incompatible Orientation, Harry resents being stuck in a sham heterosexual relationship, and takes his frustration out on his wife. He alternates between doing his best to ignore her and beating her. On the rare occasions when Harry reluctantly has sex with his wife, he can only perform by fantasizing about mutilating and killing her.
  • Big Brother Bully: An extreme case of Arthur to George aka "Georgette". Arthur is disgusted by George's homosexuality and effeminacy, and routinely beats and torments his younger brother.
  • Big Rotten Apple: The book highlights the seediest side of 1950s Brooklyn, a world of crime and utter moral depravity.
  • Brooklyn Rage: Vinnie and his gang in the story Another Day, Another Dollar are a particularly sociopathic example.
  • Bury Your Gays: "Georgette" dies of a drug overdose in the novel (in the film, he's hit by car as he runs into the street in a drug-induced panic). It's also possible that Harry doesn't survive his beating.
  • Creator Cameo: Author Hubert Selby Jr. has a brief cameo in the film as a cab driver.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Harry Black, a deeply closeted gay man, beats his wife and fantasizes about mutilating and killing her in order to be able to sexually perform with her. Additionally, when he no longer has the funds to get trysts with the gold-digging local drag queens, he attempts to fellate an underage boy.
  • Dirty Coward: In spite of his tough talk and bluster, Harry stays on the sidelines when his fellow union members fight with the strike breakers.
  • Drunk with Power: Harry thinks that being a union shop steward gives him the right to squander union funds on personal expenses or anything else he sees fit to do.
  • Effeminate Misogynistic Guy: George aka "Georgette" is an effeminate drag queen who treats women with utter contempt, particularly those competing for the attention of the thugs he's infatuated with.
  • Extreme Omnisexual: Vinnie and his friends think of themselves as heterosexual and would mercilessly beat anyone who suggests otherwise, but they're not above trysts with the local drag queens when that's the only "trade" available on the street.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Harry is physically repulsed by his wife's body and is both sexually and emotionally disgusted by women generally. Harry also takes his frustration at being trapped in a sham heterosexual life out on his wife by beating her and fantasizing about mutilating and killing her.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Completely averted with Tralala in the novel, who is just as amoral and violent as her pimps. Played straight in the movie's final scenes, where she is shown to be a much more vulnerable and sympathetic character under the tough and sleazy facade. In her last scene, she comforts Spook, the boy infatuated with her, and thinks fondly of the love letter written by her last client before he went off to war.
  • Jerkass: Most of the principal characters.
    • Harry Black beats his wife, neglects his son, and steals money from the union he represents as shop steward.
    • Vinnie and his gang are thugs whose main pastime is beating up anyone who trespasses on "their" turf.
    • Tralala is a hooker who robs her Johns with help from her pimps, often leaving them knocked unconscious or badly beaten in back alleys.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: As one would expect for a novel about the violent dregs of society, it doesn't take much to lead to severe beatings or even murder:
    • A young soldier is nearly beaten to death by Vinnie's gang of thugs for no reason at all other than "intruding" on what they perceive as their home turf.
    • Harry Black suffers a similar fate when the local toughs find out that he attempted to perform oral sex on an underage boy.
    • In addition to being gang-raped, Tralala is mercilessly beaten and mutilated.
  • Lighter and Softer: Surprisingly so for a movie that many saw as relentlessly bleak, the film still manages to end on a more hopeful note than the novel in several ways.
    • The novel ends with the chapter Land's End, portraying the hopeless, wasted lives of tenement building residents. The movie ends with a happy scene in the family life of Joe and the union members going back to work.
    • It's strongly implied that Tralala was killed after her gang rape. In the film, she not only survives, but it's implied that there's some hope for her redemption: she comforts Spook, the infatuated young boy who came to her rescue.
    • In contrast, Harry and George/Georgette come to equally unfortunate ends in the film as in the novel.
  • Parental Neglect: Other than some of the people in And Baby Makes Three chapter, being responsible, committed family men isn't a high priority for most of the main characters.
    • One of the main characters in the final chapter "Land's End" has his children living in squalor and hunger in a tenement building while he buys fancy accessories for his car.
    • Harry Black doesn't give a damn about his son any more than he cares for his wife, and sees him (and his wife) as an unwanted, irritating burden.
  • Predatory Prostitute: Tralala, who robs her Johns with help from Vinnie's gang, often leaving them beaten unconscious in back alleys.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: George/Georgette often uses obscure vocabulary to show that he's more cultured than the other drag queens and hustlers in his circle.
  • Sex Equals Death: Tralala is gang raped, badly beaten, and mutilated with a broken glass bottle before being left for dead in the vacant lot where it all happened.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Harry is a low-ranking union official (shop steward), but struts around as though he has a great deal of power in the union. Nobody takes him very seriously, and even the other union officials barely tolerate him.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the novel, Tralala is brutally beaten and gang-raped. The last man to rape her finishes her off by inserting a broken glass bottle into her crotch and leaves her for dead. In the film, Tralala gets the gang rape and the beating, but not the glass bottle treatment, so none of her injuries are life-threatening.
  • Wall of Text: Hubert Selby writes in a stream-of-consciousness style without much punctuation or paragraph breaking.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It's unclear in either the novel or the film whether Harry survived the beating.
  • World of Jerkass: With the possible exception of the young couple in "And Baby Makes Three", none of the main characters in Last Exit to Brooklyn are remotely likable - they are all either brutal thugs or slaves to their drug addiction and/or sex drives.