WAITING PERIOD by Hubert Selby Jr.

WAITING PERIOD
by Hubert Selby, Jr.; Marion Boyars Publishers, 2002

Hubert Selby, Jr., despite swimming in the middle of his septuagenarian years, has not gone soft. The author who created that great, sprawling, brawling novel about American working-class frustration and angst—Last Exit to Brooklyn—way back in 1964 is still seething. And, thank cruel fate for small favors, he apparently still has some of his original literary teeth.

With his latest book, Waiting Period, Selby rattles out a 200-page internal monologue of a tormented and unnamed protagonist. His suicidal first words: “… but obviously the best way is with sleeping pills and a plastic bag over your head…sitting in a tub filled with water, I think. Sounds easy enough. Sort of peaceful. Go to sleep and that’s it. Yeah, I guess… If you don’t get sick and throw up all the damn pills.…” It’s vintage Selby: straight to the punch, a simple linguistic uppercut with brass knuckles.

Very quickly we learn our narrator doesn’t go through with his terminal act, however, his attempts to purchase a gun are thwarted by a glitch in the criminal background-check system. This sets off a new round of embittered ranting, written with Selby’s typically idiosyncratic grammatical tics: “So now I just sit here and wait. The rotten system isn’t functioning. Always the system. Can’t escape it. This stinking, lousy life. Just wants to torture me. I finally find a purpose to my life and they thwart me. Won’t even let me kill myself for krist's sake. What kind of madness is that?”

But even in his isolated, innards-chewing state, his despair finds a new target. “Those rotten bastards!” he spits about the bureaucratic weasels he feels have cheated him. “They’re the ones who should die.” He begins slow, Travis Bickle-esque murder preparations, brewing up poisonous bacteria, practicing his delivery method, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing—all in the name of a sudden emotional epiphany, the world suffused with light and optimistic glee.

This is where Waiting Period’s psychological narrative technique reveals its primary flaw: its inability to show action. Selby’s whirlpooling streams-of-thought perfectly encapsulate the binary nature of manic depression, from the sucking, inescapable black bog to a hyperactive white water ride that never stays in one place for long. But these word streams don’t allow for descriptions of physical surroundings or activities. The reader must bob along with the narrator’s brain-flow, and most of the actual action occurs outside the monologue. Noting this, Waiting Period works better as an investigation of, and immersion in, bipolar states of mind than as a tale in and of itself. Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man before him, this is a character study as much as a story. Not to mention that Selby’s done much the same thing—and better—in previous books like The Room.

Regardless, there’s enough invention and energy in Selby’s pen to counteract this setback. And yet despite the crazy ease and flow of his thoughts, Selby offers no easy answers to what it all means. As the narrator’s neuroses—and self-prescribed, violent cures—evolve, Selby implies that his character will continue to escalate his increasingly vengeful acts into infinity. There is no real closure. The narrative simply runs out without providing any resolution other than what the reader may imagine.

The same is true about the mysterious Voice who occasionally interrupts the narrative with third-person proclamations about the protagonist. Selby doesn’t tell us who this interloper is. A split-personality? The author? God? Satan? One guesses it could be any or all of these. The fact that the Voice gets the novel’s last word—”Amen”—about the protagonist’s vigilantism may indicate Selby believes in an external spirit that approves of, and maybe even instigates, Man’s eternal plunge into violence. It isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that Selby still chronicles humanity’s haunted psyche with a willpower, wit, and sharpness of tongue rarely seen—especially in a man of his age. Amen to that, indeed.

-John Graham

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