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In 'Last Exit,' Brooklyn Is A Character, Too

There are a lot of books I'd like to tell you I always reach for, books I'm supposed to love ...

But the one I actually always have by my side is Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr. I don't know why this is my book. As a girlfriend said, "Why would you recommend that book to people?"

I know. It's graphic. It's violent. But I've purchased Last Exit to Brooklyn three times now because I have mistakenly given it to a friend or put it in storage like an idiot, thinking I could live without it. I can't.

Selby Jr.'s voice always draws me in. He writes in Brooklyn street slang and doesn't delineate between what characters think and what they say. The result in Last Exit is somewhere between poetry and profanity.

The book itself is set in the '50s in an area of Brooklyn so harsh that any sign of weakness is met with violence. So the dialogue reflects the type of neighborhood where someone might rape you or beat you half to death because they don't like the way you walk.

There is Harry, the closeted strike leader who uses union petty cash to discover the world of drag queens; Tralala, the money hungry young girl who sees her bust as her ticket to a better life. And she's completely shameless about it. And Georgette, the transvestite, who is in love with a young neighborhood criminal and imagines herself always closer to her goal of being his exclusive girlfriend.

They are not the kind of characters you normally root for; they are too flawed in very destructive ways. It's like rooting for the schoolyard bully because you found out that when he's not slamming people into lockers he likes butterflies. The beauty of Last Exit is that, against the odds, these characters are reaching. So as much as you are revolted by their flaws, you also start to see them as the product of their own fight against this neighborhood.

In that way, the neighborhood becomes a character -- the antagonist out to crush hope. And Selby Jr.'s characters try so hard to defeat that antagonist -- they love, they dream, they try to transcend their lot.

And they fail and are beaten down. But surprisingly, it feels life-affirming, as though that thing that makes them try is some basic life force that cannot be killed no matter how depraved an environment it lives in -- the will to survive. And there is something inspiring about their courage -- to stand for themselves in this cruel neighborhood and say, "I'm here. This is me. I am here."

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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Mishna Wolff