Human punk

Waiting Period

Hubert Selby Jr <em>Marion Boyars, 198pp, £14.95</em>

ISBN 0714530719

While Hubert Selby Jr is celebrated as the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, a brilliant novel that damaged the censors back in the 1960s, and more recently as the writer behind the film Requiem for a Dream, he should really be promoted as the best author writing in the US today. Beats such as William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac may have grabbed the headlines and shelf space over the years, but the likes of Selby, Charles Bukowski and John Fante represent a grittier, overlapping tradition. With American literature mired in consumerism and college rebellion, Selby flies the flag for the ordinary man, a Joe Public who is thoughtful, powerless and usually called Harry.

The Willow Tree, published four years ago after a long gap, was one of his best novels, and Waiting Period maintains the momentum. Selby is often tagged a brutal novelist but, to me, he represents everything that can be good about writing fiction. An author doesn't have to sell his soul. Waiting Period opens with an unnamed narrator weighing up his options, making lifestyle choices.

Should he take some sleeping pills, or pull a plastic bag over his head and die in his bath? The problem is, he might end up choking on his own vomit, which he finds disgusting, and what if he bottles out, phones for help and ends up in an asylum or, worse still, paralysed? Perhaps he should slit his wrists instead, but that would be messy, and he would have to use a very sharp razor. Anyway, he might make a mistake, end up sewn back together, being studied and then punished by the state. Eventually, he decides that shooting himself is the cleanest option and sets off to buy a gun. But there is a problem. The computer system used by the salesman to run police checks has broken down; he will have to wait a few days before he can collect his weapon. And what if the metal barrel breaks one of his teeth when he sticks it in his mouth?

So the waiting period begins, during which time our hero realises that killing himself would be the same as murdering an innocent man. There are others who are much more deserving - Barnard, for instance, a bureaucrat from the Veterans Administration who has driven him to the verge of suicide by refusing his claim for benefits. The idea starts to grow. Surging back up out of the depths of depression, the narrator suddenly has a reason to live. We are off and tripping on a Selby-style roller-coaster ride of emotional highs and lows, his prose perfect for the constant shifts in thought and feeling, from first gear to fifth in 2.6 seconds with plenty of emergency stops along the way. These big chunks of accelerated confidence mark all his work, with its constant battle for order in a confused world, its mental wars and moral challenges.

But hard as he tries, the narrator can never escape the system. It has driven him to the edge of suicide and now offers him a way out in the form of the internet, the tool that teaches him how to cultivate E coli spores to poison his enemies, and later how to make the bombs that will trigger a huge gang war. His targets are a selection of free-enterprise gangsters, a government bureaucrat, and white supremacists who would characteristically hate the federal government. There are no strict party lines to the assassin's work: it is personal.

The man loves nature and the world's innocent victims; he is only seeking justice, after all. His narrative is counterpointed by an unknown voice praising his cool decision-making (we never know if the voice belongs to God, the computer or the killer's own ego). Although he worries about trees and small animals, the narrator shows no mercy for Barnard the family man, for Big Jim the redneck belittled as a child, or for the Russian and Italian gangsters caught up in a phony war. And, as always, the truth is just out of reach. There is no neat ending. At war with himself, the man finds salvation only in the destruction of others.

Waiting Period shows real spiritual depth as it mashes together life and death, humour and horror. This book takes on the machine and comes out the other side with the author's soul well and truly intact.

John King's most recent novel is White Trash (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The laptop fascists