Selby's 'The Willow Tree': sordid despair


"The Willow Tree," Hubert Selby Jr. Marion Boyars. 288 pages. $25.95.

In his late teens, having left the merchant marines because of tuberculosis, Hubert Selby Jr. needed a new career. According his Webpage he decided, "I knew the alphabet. Maybe I could become a writer."

He has got the alphabet down. But it is a shame that after four novels and a collection of short stories, he still has not mastered punctuation or syntax. Perhaps he found neither particularly important for a novel meant to be written in dialect like his latest, "The Willow Tree."

Unfortunately, Selby hasn't quite mastered dialects either. It takes more than some misspellings ("bes fren" or "axing") and a whole lot of "be's" ("I be feelin like I never be wakin up") to re-create the speech of African-Americans in the South Bronx.

A young Puerto Rican girl would not say "momma," but "mam." Finally, Selby relies on a "ya" or two in every third sentence, a random "Goot, goot," and difficulties conjugating the verb 'to be' in order to portray a German concentration camp survivor (or, in dialect, "constration camp").

A severe beating brings Bobby, a young African-American and Moishe, a camp survivor together. Bobby has been dating the 13 year-old Maria. As punishment for the interracial dating, a Puerto Rican gang throws lye in Maria's face and nearly beats Bobby to death with chains.

Not wanting to tangle with the police or frighten his already overwhelmed single mother, Bobby stumbles off. He eventually collapses in what seems to be an abandoned building. But it is Moishe's home. Moishe helps patch Bobby up and train so that he is strong enough to exact his revenge.

Bobby is bound and determined to kill the gang leader Raul and his minions. Maria's suicide strenghtens his resolve. Gradually, much too gradually in fact, Moishe finally convinces Bobby he must learn to love his enemies, just as he learned to wish happiness for Klaus, the business partner who betrayed him. So, after hanging him over the edge of a building, Bobby sets Raul free.

Selby's message -- that hate destroys both the victim and the perpetrator -- is hardly objectionable. What is objectionable is the conflating of the Holocaust and gang warfare in modern America. Although they both stem from racism, they are fundamentally different. Lumping them together as the "same hell," is merely intellectual laziness. To do so under the guise of art is irresponsible.

Selby first gained notoriety and a cult-like following when his first novel, "Last Exit to Brooklyn" was published in 1964. His books since then have chronicled the sordid lives of drug addicts, prostitutes and criminals. He obviously has a talent for capturing their despair.

Larger moral issues, however, demand more.

He reassures those readers who are unable to appreciate his murky, stream-of-consciousness prose with the claim, "My object to put the reader through an emotional experience, and I succeeded so well that a lot of critics believed I was an illiterate who sat down and typed as fast as he could."

Perhaps he types slowly.

Tess Lewis is a Rhodes Scholar. She has written for the Hudson Review, the Partisan Review and other publications. Her translation of Peter Handke's "Once Again For Thucydides" will be published by New Directions this fall.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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