BOOK REVIEW: Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.

First off: I’m a big fan of Hubert Selby Jr., because of the incredibly dark, tortured subjects he writes about and his writing style as a whole. Having read “Last Exit To Brooklyn”, “The Room” and “Waiting Period”, I knew this was not going to be about rainbows and unicorns, but something about this piece of writing struck a chord in me deeper than either of the other three. This is probably down to the more realistic and cohesive storyline which concentrates on four characters and their descent into hardcore drug use and its effects on their relationships. 

Based in The Bronx, New York, you’re introduced to a pretty bizarre and confusing scene, where Harry Goldfrabb is taking his mother’s – Sara Goldfrabb – television set to take to a pawn shop, with help from his best friend Tyrone C. Love. Harry has a temper towards his mother and as you find out at the pawn shop, this is a regular occurrence as Sara always ends up picking the television up and paying the owner back at a later date. Skip to a while later, Harry meets Marion, a girl he becomes romantically involved in after meeting at a few friends’ drug sessions at their homes or workplaces. Harry, Tyrone and Marion are occasional heroin users, and at this point are more experimental with weed, ‘uppers’ and poppers. When Harry and Tyrone come across a dealer that provides the purest heroin they’ve had, they begin to plan using it to support their own drug trafficking venture. Marion agrees to this, herself and Harry discussing the potential to start their own coffee shop chain from the profit they’ll make. This goes well for a while and the trio make a good amount of money while supporting their own heroin use.

Meanwhile Sara is alone and one day has some sort of hallucination of getting a phonecall from TV gameshow host, telling her that she’s been chosen to appear on a yet-to-be-named show. Sara’s obsession with television means that this imaginary event becomes a major importance to her and warps her obviously fragile mind. She aims to lose weight to fit into a red dress she wore for Harry’s bamitsvah, at first turning to a diet plan which frustrates her thanks to her binge-eating habits. After hearing from a friend about a doctor giving ‘medicine’ to people so they lose weight, Sara visits him and is completely naive of the fact that the diet pills she’s receiving is speed. Her behaviour changes; she becomes more energetic and happier at first, but as she adjusts, she gets prone to harsher comedowns and begins to take the speed at smaller intervals until she begins taking them all at once in the morning. This damages her mental and physical health and she returns to the doctor, only to be given a prescription of Valium on top of the speed.

As winter comes around, Harry, Marion and Tyrone’s connection is murdered and the quality/quantity of heroin falls fast, to the point where Harry and Tyrone spend hours in the cold to find someone who can sell to them – as well as their addiction having worsened in that time. As the situation worsens, their relationships are strained, mostly to two events. The first is Harry convincing Marion to visit her psychiatrist to ask for money to fund their habit. They both know that the psychiatrist expects sexual favours, and does. The image of Marion and her psychiatrist torments Harry while she’s away; Marion feels degenerated by the act and shoots up as soon as she returns to numb her feelings. The second is a similar (repeating) deal when Harry and Tyrone find a dealer who will only give heroin for sex, and so Marion is pressured into visiting the pusher for regular encounters – at one point seemingly having to have sex with a group of women and men for her next fix. This strains Harry and Marion’s relationship, causing them to hide their own stashes, and the latter prioritising her supply of heroin before emotions.

Sara gets worse and is taken to the hospital by her friends who are worried for her health. She gets admitted to a mental institution, receives poor care and electroshock treatments, damaging her beyond recognition and making her lose control of some motor abilities. Marion’s visits turn into her prostituting herself for heroin. Harry and Tyrone drive to Miami in hope to pick up a supply to return to their summer lifestyle, but Harry keeps injecting into the same abscess and his arm becomes infected, and the duo are arrested for vagrancy. Without medical attention and abuse from the police, Harry’s arm gets so bad it has to be amputated, and Tyrone ends up in jail.

While drug use is at the forefront of this tale, it seems like there’s an equally but less obvious focus on relationships and human psyche; especially in terms of how addiction, greed, aspirations and carelessness can make and break them. You sit with the characters and read their conversations, along with their internal monologues, noticing how their thoughts and attitudes change about their environment and each other. Harry, Marion and Tyrone in particular are interesting because you see how the junk manipulates their thought processes and how they try to excuse or rationalise their behaviour – which is obviously detrimental to a third party looking in (Marion’s dealer ends up making her realise this with his comments).

Hubert Selby Jr. fluidly manages to narrate this decline of the characters and sort of makes their justification of their actions relatable – it would be a bit of a lie for any reader to not find the faults in these characters in themselves. The strain and thoughts that Harry and Marion both almost too close to home thanks to the brutal honesty of their paranoia and jealousy. Selby Jr. – intentionally or unintentionally – picks on how pride, doubt and desperation effects the sexes differently, but still makes it easier to sympathise with both, no matter what your gender is. The slow breakdown of their relationship is actually quite heartwrenching, and in the author’s true nature, it doesn’t work itself out.

Another thing that he does great with this is the deceiving transitions between a character’s dialect and narrative, as well as mixing characters’ fantasies with reality. You’ll be tricked a few times in thinking that things have worked out successfully when they haven’t even made progress, and it’s a bit disappointing every time.

The relationship facet of the book is what hit me the most and made this the most personally engaging writing of Hubert Selby Jr.’s I’ve read so far. Definitely worth a read… if you’re prepared to go through an extremely bleak journey.

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