The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby Jr. is another novel in about the life outside of society that few people really experience. Selby was born in New York in 1928. A high school dropout who joined the Merchant Marines and came down with tuberculosis. Experimental surgery saved his life but also got hooked on pain killers and heroin. Bed ridden for the next ten years, he developed his own writing style.
The Willow Tree, like most of Selby’s work, is deep, deep underground life. Life is bleak and then it gets bleaker and never stops its downward spiral. Hope, doesn’t exist in the inner city: Drugs violence, racial hatred, and the realization that that is all there is. His work reflects the darkness he experienced his whole life. The rare instances where there is beauty,“Then starting the descent through the cool refreshing air, feeling an exquisite ecstasy as she floated free of the flames & ugliness…” come at a great price.
Selby developed his own writing style. At the first look, you might think that there is a error in the ebook format or on the press. Paragraphs end, sometimes randomly, sometimes in mid sentence. The next paragraph starts without a tab indention or maybe three tab indention or right on the right margin. Conversations are written as they are spoken and spelled in the same manner. Quotation marks and even a references as to whose turn it is speaking are nonexistent. “Didn’t” was typed as “didn/t” because the the “/” key was easier to reach. Periodically, he typed words in all capital letters too. All this might seem a bit annoying to the reader, but it all seems to fall in place and work well. His style seems to add to the story.
Selby sets the tone of the book in the opening sentence: “Bobby lay in bed listening to the rats scratching and squealing in the wall a few inches behind his head, the rats sounding as if they were ready to gnaw through his skull and chew on his eyeballs from the inside.” Bobby, just a kid, is looking forward to summer, getting a job, earning some money, and spending it with Maria. Classic Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story comes into play. Bobby is black and Maria is Puerto Rician and although they are in love others see a problem. Bobby and Maria are attacked by a group of young Puerto Ricians. Bobby barely crawls away and Maria ends up with a face full of lye. Maria ends up at the hospital and even there she is view by some of the staff as either a prostitute or a drug user, that working people will have to pay for her care. Bobby, is saved by an old man name Moishie. Bobby filled with hate and learns from the old man with a numbered tattoo on his wrist about hate and life…and the story begins.
Selby combines an unique literary style, a coherent Burroughs maybe, and a gritty, tough, New York City story. As dark as his writing can be it is also compelling and hard to put down. The characters are mature and at times it is hard to believe they are in their early teens. The Willow Tree is a powerful and moving book that is sure to stay with you for a long time. Unfortunately, the world lost Selby almost ten years ago and no one has been able to step up and take his place.