Hubert Selby Jr’s stream-of-consciousness morality tale is shot through with vitality and colour
Hubert Selby Jr: ‘utterly convincing and terrifying on the subject of how our habits can destroy us’. Photograph: KC Bailey/AP
Hubert Selby Jr is one of the masters of gritty, Beat-era stories peopled by the homeless, the poor, the desperate. Dismissed from the merchant marines for ill health at the age of 19, Selby decided to try writing. The lung problems he suffered through his life led him to become dependent on painkillers and heroin, experiences that informed Requiem, a novel that is utterly convincing and terrifying on the subject of how our habits can destroy us.
Written in stream-of-consciousness street slang – this edition has retained the /s used instead of apostrophes (their closer proximity on the typewriter allowed Selby to write more quickly) – the novel follows Harry Goldfarb and his best friend Tyrone C Love as they roll Harry’s mother’s television down to the pawn shop to get the cash to score a “taste”. When Sara, Mrs Goldfarb, comes to collect it, we discover these japes are routine; also routine are Sara’s excuses and indulgences for her only son. The fantasies she harbours have a tragicomic, hollow ring to them.
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Harry does in fact have a nice girl – Marion, from a well off, emotionally unengaged family. Together they revel in love and youth, sex and drugs, dreaming of an existence running a chain of arts-themed cafes. With Tyrone they come up with a money-making scheme and it appears they could all make their dreams come true – if only the scheme didn’t involve selling heroin. Meanwhile, Mrs Goldfarb’s addiction to food and television is transformed into something much more dangerous when she is offered the chance to be a TV quiz show contestant; the prospect of fame has her hitting the diet pills and spiralling mentally out of control.
Although Requiem is something of a morality tale, it is never patronising – the characters are too involving and alive; the dialogue, mashed as it is into the paragraphs, is full of classic, brilliant New York banter (“You lookin good man… Watch you do, change embalmers?”). The ending, mostly tragic, is leavened with hope, and reflects the life of the author who on his deathbed refused the drugs he had been addicted to for decades.