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" Requiem for a Dream"

by Hubert Selby Jr.
(Thunder's Mouth Press)

Review by John Gabree

Can it be that Hubert Selby's reputation and reknown are to be restored to him at last? A quarter of a century ago, there were few writers more esteemed or more famous. His savage 1964 novel, "Last Exit to Brooklyn," sold 750,000 copies, an extraordinary quantity for any work of fiction, but unheard of for an avant-garde depiction of the raw and brutal life of the streets. A beat supernova, "Last Exit" was a final blast of '50s bohemianism and a challenge and inspiration to a new generation of writers who had begun to discover the satisfactions of politics, pot and prose. Unfortunately, despite its success, "Last Exit" was for Selby the beginning of a long slide through drug and alcohol abuse to obscurity.

Now, however, Grove Press has reprinted "Last Exit" in a $3.95 paperback, and a movie version is being made by a German producer. Selby's 1976 novel "The Demon" has been optioned for a film. And Thunder's Mouth, a small New York publisher that specializes in reprints by black and avant-garde writers of the Fifties and early Sixties, has issued a trade-sized edition of his 1978 novel, "Requiem for a Dream."

The timing may be right for "Requiem" to find its audience. The national anguish over the ravages wrought by drugs is dramatized in Selby's story. Two street hustler's - the black one, Tyrone, is one of the most vividly realized creations in recent fiction - and an upper-class woman pursue the big score, a pound of heroin, which they believe will free them to live happily ever after. Their casual drug use inevitably turns into addiction, destroying them and their dream (the book's title is not worthy of the lean precision of Selby's writing). In a subplot, the lonely, aging mother of one of the boys, her mind addled by the fantasy of becoming rich and famous as a game-show contestant, gets hooked on diet pills and winds up Thorazined and electroshocked into submission.

Despite the grimness of the story's locale and the meanness of its characters, Selby's great sympathy for those for whom America's promise is less a dream than an unattainable fantasy gives his work an undeniable appeal. The author's compassion, coupled with the power, grace and simplicity of his style, his originality, the acuteness of his vision and his outrage at what he sees, are the marks of a great writer.

Selby's novels may not be available everywhere - the Crown and B. Dalton stores I tried had neither one - but they are worth the effort of tracking down.

Requiem for A Dream
Last Exit to Brooklyn



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