Last Exit to Brooklyn  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is a 1964 novel by American author Hubert Selby, Jr. The novel has become a cult classic because of its harsh, uncompromising look at lower class Brooklyn in the 1950s and for its brusque, everyman style of prose.

Although critics and fellow writers praised the book on its release, Last Exit to Brooklyn caused much controversy due to its frank portrayals of taboo subjects, such as drug use, street violence, gang rape, homosexuality, transvestism and domestic violence. It was the subject of an important obscenity trial in the United Kingdom and was banned in Italy.


The rights for the British edition were acquired by Marion Boyars and John Calder and the novel ended up in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The manuscript was published in January 1966, received positive reviews and sold almost 14,000 copies. The director of Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford complained to the DPP about the detailed depictions of brutality and cruelty in the book but the DPP did not pursue the allegations.

Sir Cyril Black, the then Conservative Member of Parliament for Wimbledon, initiated a private prosecution of the novel before Marlborough Street Magistrates' Court, under judge Leo Gradwell. The public prosecutor brought an action under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act. During the hearing the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate ordered that all copies of the book within the Magistrate's Court be seized. Not a single bookseller possessed a copy, but the publishing offices of Calder and Boyars, within the Bow Street Magistrate's jurisdiction, were discovered to be in possession of three copies. The books were duly seized, and Mrs. Boyars was summonsed to show cause why "the said articles" should not be forfeited. Expert witnesses spoke, "unprecedentedly," for the prosecution: they included the publishers Sir Basil Blackwell and Robert Maxwell. On the defense side were the scholars Al Alvarez II, and professor Frank Kermode, who had previously compared the work to Dickens. Others who provided rebuttal evidence included H. Montgomery Hyde.

The order had no effect beyond the borders of the Marlborough Street Court — the London neighborhood of Soho. At the hearing Calder declared that the book would continue to be published and would be sold everywhere else outside of that jurisdiction. In response the prosecutor brought criminal charges under Section 2 of the Act, which entitled the defendants to trial by jury under Section 4.

The jury was all male. Judge Graham Rigers directed that the women "might be embarrassed at having to read a book which dealt with homosexuality, prostitution, drug-taking and sexual perversion." The trial lasted nine days; on November 23 the jury returned a guilty verdict.

In 1968, an appeal issued by the lawyer and writer John Mortimer resulted in a judgment by Mr Justice Lane which reversed the ruling. The case marked a turning point in British censorship laws. By that time, the novel had sold over 33,000 hardback and 500,000 paperback copies in the United States.


There had been several attempts to adapt Last Exit to Brooklyn into a film. One of the earliest attempts was made by producer Steve Krantz and animator Ralph Bakshi, who wanted to direct a live-action film based on the novel. Bakshi had sought out the rights to the novel after completing Heavy Traffic, a film which shared many themes with Selby's novel. Selby agreed to the adaptation and actor Robert De Niro accepted the role of Harry in Strike. According to Bakshi, "the whole thing fell apart when Krantz and I had a falling out over past business. It was a disappointment to me and Selby. Selby and I tried a few other screenplays after that on other subjects, but I could not shake Last Exit from my mind."

In 1989, director Uli Edel adapted the novel into a film. The screenplay was written by Desmond Nakano. The movie starred Stephen Lang as Harry Black, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tralala, Burt Young as Big Joe, Peter Dobson as Vinnie, and Jerry Orbach as Boyce, as well as Stephen Baldwin and future star Sam Rockwell in small roles. Selby made a cameo appearance in the film as the taxi driver who accidentally hits the transvestite Georgette (played by Alexis Arquette). Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits provided the film score. The film version received excellent reviews and won a few critics' awards for Leigh's portrayal of Tralala, though its limited distribution and downbeat subject matter prevented it from becoming a commercial success. Ralph Bakshi referred to Edel's film as being "like a hot dog without mustard," saying that the film "was done horribly."

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Last Exit to Brooklyn" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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