Last Exit to Brooklyn is a novel I've been meaning to read for a few years, but every time I thought about picking it up, let alone dropping down the...moreLast Exit to Brooklyn is a novel I've been meaning to read for a few years, but every time I thought about picking it up, let alone dropping down the fifteen bucks to buy the thing, I heistated. The reason I held back from indulging was because of Selby's equally well-known book, Requiem for a Dream. 'Could this, Selby's breakthrough novel, even come close to the power (and horror) that made Requiem so captivating?' This was the kind of doubt that kept me second- guessing Last Exit for so long. But this summer, indulging a gluttony for literary punishment, I decided it was time to give Selby another try, and jumped headfirst into the acerbic author's first book.
It was a decision that immediately proved rewarding. For while it may not have equaled the spell that Requiem for a Dream held over me (and countless other readers the world over), Last Exit to Brooklyn is as compelling and memorable a book as I could ever hope to read. And, getting down to brass tacks, it may have even set the bar so high that the author's later novels could not surpass it. But I digress.
Unlike all of his books that followed (save Song of the Silent Snow), Last Exit to Brooklyn is not a novel in a true sense. Rather, it is a collection of short vignettes, ranging in ~20-120 pages each, all tied together by recurring characters in a set location (Brooklyn, of course). Many reviews of the book are quick to grab the reader's attention with the degraded cast of characters that make up the book: whores, cynics, addicts, transvestites, you name it. And while the scum that populates the set in 1950s New York does make for an exciting read, it is the sheer humanity and sense of compassion that Selby gives them that elevates Last Exit to a level of remarkable beauty. The type of people that Selby writes about may be dim-witted, heartless low-lifes, but they are nothing if not three-dimension, even sympathetic, creatures.
Those already familiar with Selby's unique writing style will be pleased to see that, even at the writing of his first book, he was well on his way to becoming the master of a unique and compelling craft. Selby rejected grammatical codes to give his writing a more 'stream of conscious' feel. This means that sentences are not capitalized, contractions are marked with slashes (i.e., 'won/t' not 'won't'), and paragraph indentations vary for dramatic effect. Unfortunately, those who are entering the realm of Selby for the first time may see this as a bit of an obstacle. And truth be told, it does take some getting used to. However, this stylistic flair never deters from the book's flow, and in many instances, it enhances its flavor. Consider a passage in one vignette where a couple is ARGUING IN THEIR BROOKLYN APARTMENT, CAPITAL LETTERS AND ALL (but where their children's actions are diminished by lowercase type).
Selby's immersion in the New York lifestyle also comes out in his characters' extensive use of Brookyln slang ("ga tahell"), which is grating at times, but constructs a much more vivid setting overall. Some sticklers for grammatical tradition will be turned off by Selby's style, but I consider it to be a critical component of what makes his particular recipe for literature so unique and moving. As Lou Reed said of Selby's work, this made "his words jump off tha page".
So far I've made made a big to-do about Selby's style and reputation, but very little mention about the actual content of Last Exit to Brooklyn, so I'd probably better get in a word about that. As in any great novel, the stories of Last Exit are what make it a meaningful read. The stories contained in the book show a surprising amount of scope, and not all of them are the stuff of gloom and doom. Take for example, 'And the Baby Makes Three', one of the shortest of the novels scenes. This section is a simple, domestic tale of a father's growing love for his family (and motorcycles) after his daughter becomes pregnant. Which is a nice contrast to 'Strike', which tells of a drawn-out labor strike at a Brooklyn factory. The longest story in the bunch, 'Strike' is a meandering character study of Harry Black, local union leader and sycophant extraordinaire. As the tale unfolds, so does Harry's need to keep control over the strike, as well as his suppressed sexual desires. Selby's keen perception of psychology on display here, especially the darker sides of the human psyche, would have even Dostoevsky clamoring for more.
Each story could almost read as a fable, a story of man's quest for meaning and belonging in a world that delivers neither. There are some truly warped characters events that unravel themselves in at least four of the six major 'parts' of Last Exit, but I won't spoil them here.
The lone reason why I chose to give Last Exit a four star rating, instead of the five stars it probably deserves, is because of its inconsistent delivery. As a result of the varied length of its' stories, Last Exit can either be wholly engaging or downright tedious, depending on what section the reader's in. There are certainly some stories (most of them short and contained at the book's coda, 'Landsend') that are mundane to the point of becoming stagnant. Last Exit is a book that was easy to pick up, hard to put down, but somehow, even harder to finish. But in spite of some lackluster passages scattered throughout, it is undoubtedly worth reading. If Requiem for a Dream is the book that made me interested in Hubert Selby, Jr.--and I suspect I'm not the only one who can say that--than Last Exit to Brooklyn is the book that made me fall in love with him. I'd recommend this unforgettable novel to anyone who's looking to do the same.(less)
When I walked up to the counter of my local bookstore (Denver's famous Tattered Cover) with American Psycho in my hand, the attendant behind the count...moreWhen I walked up to the counter of my local bookstore (Denver's famous Tattered Cover) with American Psycho in my hand, the attendant behind the counter offered me a warning. "Ah yes," he said, mind reeling back to the bestsellers of seventeen years ago, "I remember reading this one when it came out. Not for the faint of heart, I'm afraid..."
"...more like the strong of stomach."
Although I had seen the motion picture adaptation of the novel and was vaguely aware of the violence the book contained, at the time of purchase, I had no idea how apt that warning would be. And now, 400 grueling pages later, I can think of no better way to begin a review of this startling, but certainly worthwhile, novel.
Some experts on serial killers will repeatedly insist that this class of psychopath is not necessarily bad (at least not irredeemably so), but simply misunderstood. After taking a look at the amount of negative, hamfisted reviews of American Psycho on this very website, I'm inclined to give the same benefit of the doubt to Bret Easton Ellis' novel. Although its content is undeniably gruesome, writing off the novel as 'bad' or even 'unreadable' due to graphic content is like saying you can't stand to watch a hockey game when the gloves come off. Because while the shock and awe factor is certainly present, there is much more to this story than that.
However, even though I was fascinated by the book, I don't want to defend it to the point of downplaying its graphic content. Although the first 100 pages are relatively tame, building the yuppie side of protagonist Patrick Bateman and the utterly stupefying wealth he's surrounded by, the remaining three-quarters of the book is chock full of the most disgusting violence I've ever read. This is the kind of graphic stuff that would make Stephen King blush. Rape, disfigurement, torture and bloody murder quickly become recurring scenes in the book, as Bateman's sadistic side gets the better of him, and if you're still reading at this point, it's time to make a decision: set it down and miss out on a terrifying examination of the yuppie lifestyle at its worst, or press on and keep squirming for a few hundred more pages.
For me, the choice was an easy one to make on: suck it up and keep reading.
Ellis' fantastic writing style is what made it possible to stomach these graphic scenes. In the hands of a less-dedicated author, these torturous descriptions would have been either completely depraved or humorously amateurish, but Easton always handles it with this idea gently throbbing in the background: this is satire at its finest (and most grim). Which is to say that American Psycho is one of the most unusual books I've ever read. As numerous reviewers have already pointed out, the book spends a lot of time developing setting, but with great attention to (superficial) detail. None of Bateman's business associates are introduced without an explicit description of the brand-name duds they're wearing, but all of Pateman's victims are provided with the most crude physical descriptions possible (especially the women). Yuppie businessmen are all attractive, faceless entities; the names 'Ralph Lauren' and 'Giorgio Armani' appear more often--and are more telling details--than the names or actions of Bateman's colleagues on Wall Street.
There is a also an understated comedic element to American Psycho, although it is often merely a tense laugh, an uncomfortable pause between grizzly violent episodes. Take the three chapters spread throughout the book where Bateman discusses his love for popular 1980s musical artists (Whitney Houston, Genesis, and Huey Lewis and the News) ad nauseum. Incidentally, I loved these chapters as much as any other part of the book, and thought they provided a welcome comedic break in the monotony of Bateman's daily rituals of working out, booking reservations at five-star restaurants, and dismembering prostitutes in his upscale Manhattan apartment. I say again, the novel is not without its humorous flirtations, although it's usually a comedy as dark as Patrick's own twisted desires.
My main problem with the book is in the last 100 pages or so, the continuity to disintegrate (don't worry, no big spoilers here). At a time where the story could have been elevated above all the violent depravity and yuppie greed embodied by Patrick's character (somehow), Ellis lets Bateman's final descent into insanity pass by without much of a climax. Maybe this is a reflection of the protagonist's mental stability losing all footing, but I found the ending sort-of disappointing. Readers that need a story with a definitive, concrete ending will probably be even more confused or let down by the end of the book. There are some occurrences that bring into question Bateman's entire perception of the acts he's committed ('was it a dream or wasn't it?'), but no certain answer is given. Although this is a far more interesting ending than some grim grand finale would have been, it's also less exciting, and for readers who have spent devoted this much time to reading about this sicko's twisted fantasies--or reality--I think it's natural to want to see some justice done to him. In a tangible way, this doesn't really happen. But in a more abstract sense, the fact that Bateman never receives the punishment he deserves for what he's done--but is still the victim of his own crazed fantasies--is one of the most interesting twists in the novel. I think the ending is the most contentious part of the novel, even more so than the adult content contained beforehand, and without giving away what transpires, I'll just say a lot of it is left open to interpretation: very little is spelled out for the reader.
Overall, it didn't take long for me to realize that the warning the book store clerk had given me when I bought American Psycho was dead-on. This is not a book that I would recommend to anyone casually, nor one I would just pick up and read again on a whim. The adjectives used to describe American Psycho--disturbing, grim, violent--are enough to make this an unforgettable read, but also just cause for many people to be offended by the book's content, or (hopefully) avoid it altogether. But I feel anyone who gave this novel an honest chance and still came away feeling like it was nothing more than 'pornography' might be missing a big part of the story. While reading American Psycho, I didn't feel like Ellis' intent was to subject his readers to the kind of blunt, repetitive violence reminiscent of a prison beating--although I could see how someone else might, I guess. Instead, I felt that his novel required this sort of demented protagonist, these scenes of horrific behavior, to give a startling glimpse into a possible by-product of an American lifestyle built on the worst human emotions. As Bateman describes himself early on in the novel, "I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust." By the end of the book, the protagonist is an impossible character to like, but an even more difficult one to understand. For my money, Ellis' mere attempt to make a monster like Patrick Bateman come to life on the page is reason enough to give American Psycho an earnest try. Just make sure you don't read it while eating.(less)
Crime and Punishment: Maybe Russian crime lit's finest hour. It's like Dostoevsky predicted Law & Order over 100 years before it happened. My favo...moreCrime and Punishment: Maybe Russian crime lit's finest hour. It's like Dostoevsky predicted Law & Order over 100 years before it happened. My favorite part was where Raskolnikov kills that old woman and then doesn't repent for, like, 500 pages! You really showed her, Rodya!
Blood Meridian: Or the Most Boring Book You'll Ever Read About Indian Scalping is a book that will leave readers with widely divided opinions. On the...moreBlood Meridian: Or the Most Boring Book You'll Ever Read About Indian Scalping is a book that will leave readers with widely divided opinions. On the one hand, we have a book that is brave enough to turn the myth of the Wild West on its head, and an author with enough guile and grit to make this work. On the other hand, you're faced with the task of crawling through a 300-page literary wasteland toward an oasis of an ending that hopefully makes it all worthwhile. In short, reading Blood Meridian is sort of like watching The Good, The Bad and the Ugly on TBS one Sunday afternoon: to really make it worth your time, you'd damn well better finish what you started.
Let me preface the body of my review by saying that Blood Meridian is the fifth book I've read by McCarthy, and one that I couldn't wait to begin reading. So maybe my disappointment with the book stems from the high expectations I had gained by reading some of his more visceral novels prior to this. Perhaps if I had read a few more of the author's less 'disturbing' titles beforehand, I'd been better prepared for the deliberately slow and subtle flavor of Blood Meridian. But then again, if this was the first of his books that I'd read, I'm convinced I wouldn't have made an effort to check out any of his other novels! How's that for a catch-22?
That having been said, the premise of Blood Meridian is not without its appeal. The back cover of the book advertises it as a sort-of twisted story of the grim American southwest, making its impact felt by "subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the 'Wild West.'" And this much is certainly true. Instead of treading familiar ground with his mastery of the "Southern Gothic" novel, Blood Meridian broke new ground for the author by moving his setting into the American southwest, circa 1850. The story follows a fourteen year old boy from Tennessee who leaves home and joins up with a motley crew of men forging their own twisted westward expansion. Early on in the novel, the story unravels its dark side, which is the thriving market of Indian scalps, a savage and recurring theme throughout the novel. Besides the protagonist (referred to as simply 'the kid'), Blood Meridian contains one of the most interesting antagonists of modern American lit in 'the judge'. A monster of a man, half philosopher and half warlord, the judge is the imposing thread that ties the cloth of Blood Meridian's story together from humble beginning to its ominous finale.
So how does a book with such a promising synopsis turn into such a snoozefest? I found myself asking the same question as early as thirty pages in to Blood Meridian, and didn't stop wondering until I was nearly finished with the book. For while a few bad men might make for an enticing pulp novel, McCarthy's approach to the Western fable is more subtle than that. Subtle to a fault, it turns out. Blood Meridian is neither an event-driven story, nor even a very character-driven one, and relies very heavily on establishing mood in the windblown setting of the American southwest. As a result, McCarthy leaves himself plenty of room to wax poetic and/or philosophical about what man was really looking for out West, but the result is a damn tedious affair. After the stage is set, the majority of the novel follows the characters as they piss around the badlands of Texas, looking for god knows what. Blood Meridian has more wandering in the desert than Exodus! Strong, even unforgettable stories is something McCarthy's writing has never run short on, but Blood Meridian is certainly an exception to this rule.
Another element that hampers the book is its drawn-out prose, making a relatively uneventful storyline that much harder to sift through. The style McCarthy displays in Blood Meridian is unlike any of his books I'd previously read, and surprisingly, it is not one of the book's strong suits. His prose is long-winded, with spurts of pure poetic genius showing up every couple of pages or so. One of McCarthy's greatest strengths as a writer, his unusual but riveting sense of pacing, is virtually lost in the tedium this novel. Whereas some of his previous, shorter novels, like Child of God and Outer Dark work at a quick pace, while leaving the reader time to ponder the meaning beneath the words, the pace of Blood Meridian is steady throughout, and very slow.
The strangest part about the gradual pacing is that the 'juicy' parts (i.e. gunfights, scalpings, the gang coming across various Indian massacres) don't so much as 'sneak up' as they do 'pop out' from the page, and then disappear just as abruptly as they came. While reading Blood Meridian, it was not uncommon for me to doze off on a page, be surprised by a brief sequence of literary passion, and then lose focus for the remainder of the chapter. While I do not expect edge of your seat action sequences from an author as masterful as McCarthy, I do appreciate something more exciting than a band of men walking through the deserts of Texas for hundreds of pages at a stretch.
Two more quibbles about the style of Blood Meridian: firstly, McCarthy's vocabulary is truly a sight to behold. The man has never been afraid to employ some ten dollar words, but there are enough antiquated words in here that it made me feel stupid for not knowing them. Along the same lines, because much of the book takes place in American territories prior to the Spanish-American war, Spanish is prevalent in the dialogue. Although some words or phrases are common knowledge to non-Spanish speakers, there is enough that is lost in translation to make these bilingual passages confusing. So, to sum up, a thesaurus and Spanish-English dictionary would make excellent companion pieces to this novel.
It pains me to give any book by one of my favorite authors a measly three star rating, but before I got to the final 60 pages of Blood Meridian, it would have been lucky to receive even that much. This is one virtue that can I will sing for the book: I am glad I stuck it out until the end, for there is truly redemption in the story's conclusion. But were it not for the turn of events in the final chapters, I don't think I could give the book more than two stars (for effort). For while the ending has a way of coming back, tying up a myriad of loose (and meandering) ends, and contains some of the best McCarthy prose I've yet laid eyes on...it still isn't enough to make up for some 200 pages of tedious writing and uneventful plotline. This is Blood Meridian's biggest flaw: by the time I finished the book, I was compelled to start it all over again, to see what I'd missed earlier on in the book's 'build up' to the exciting conclusion, but at the same time, I couldn't imagine trying to start the process of digesting the plodding novel all over again. Damn you, Cormac McCarthy! This book has certainly not turned me off of one of my favorite authors, but it is not one I would readily recommend to anyone else (especially those pursuing him for the first time), nor one I can imagine picking up again any time soon.