Well, after trudging through Zola’s Rome I fancied something a bit more modern and with a bit of anger, angst and passion. I’d picked up Hubert Selby’s Waiting Period from the library just before Xmas so it seemed to fit the bill.
I’ve read most of Hubert Selby’s novels but I hadn’t read his last one, Waiting Period. After a quick glance at the opening lines it looks promising – the narrator is contemplating various methods of suicide, he’s weighing up the pros and cons of different methods such as sleeping pills or slitting his wrists but it’s not long before he decides to opt for the all-American way out with a gun. Hari Kiri just seems too crazy a way to kill oneself. Ok, so the method has been decided, now to get a gun…this can’t be difficult…this is America right! Well, there’s no problem with getting one legally, just go to a store, fill out a form and away you go….only there’s a computer glitch. The bastards won’t even let him kill himself. However, this waiting period gives the narrator time to re-evaluate things:
They came close. Oh they came close. Was all set to put a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger. But there was a computer glitch. Isnt that something? A stupid glitch and I had to wait a few days and then I saw the errors of my ways, saw so clearly that I was killing the wrong person. Its not me that needs killing, its them. Funny how things can change in the wink of an eye.
So now his anger is turned towards the outside world and his initial target is Barnard (‘…it would be nice to strangle that son of a bitch Barnard at the VA, to just wait for him some night and force him to drive out of town and slowly choke the bastard…’), a government employee, whom the narrator decides has acted against him. The narrator isn’t an idiot and he doesn’t want to get caught so he decides against shooting Barnard and instead opts for contaminating Barnard’s food with E.coli. He finds out where Barnard eats his lunch and does some internet research on cultivating E.coli cultures.
If this sounds a bit dark then you’re correct, but Selby has a brilliant sense of humour and with his stream-of-consciousness style, together with his idiosyncratic punctuation, we get to listen in on all the thoughts of the narrator – every twist and turn – we see how he plans to get the E.coli into Barnard’s drink, his fears of failure, his reluctance to test his culture out on innocent animals. There’s a briliant section where he’s driving to Barnard’s diner to do the dirty deed, he’s obviously nervous and he’s getting irritated with other car drivers. Here’s a short snippet of this section:
It always amazes me how inconsiderate most drivers are. A little common courtesy would prevent 90% of the accidents. Just let the other guy have the right of way. Krist, youd think their lives depended on getting ahead of everyone. Weave in and out, cut people off and for gods sake dont use your directionals, whatever you do dont signal you dumb son of a bitch, just wander back and forth, zip across 10 lanes of traffic, thats fine, maybe cause a few accidents, even kill a few people, but what the hell, you own the fucking street so you can do what in the hell you want and whatever you do, dont go to all the trouble of pushing the lever up or down, please, please, I know it takes too much energy so dont bother, please, dont bother just go your merry way and dont fucking signal you numb nuts son of a bitch jesus krist common courtesy is ancient history with these maniacs…
This section goes on for a bit with the narrator getting increasingly wound up until another driver lets him move lane and he calms down a bit. Of course it’s all amusing as he’s getting worked up over driving etiquette while he’s on his way to commit a murder.
Does he have second thoughts about his attempt to kill Barnard? Not really, he demonises him and imagines that Barnard enjoys turning down applications for disability allowances and feels that he’ll even be doing Barnard’s family a favour by getting rid of him.
The narrator successfully gets the culture in to Barnard’s drink; I’m not exactly sure how he does this without Barnard noticing, but he does, and now he waits to see if it has the desired effects. I won’t reveal too much more of the plot but the narrator now goes through an intense ‘high’ period, only to be followed by an incredible ‘low’ in which his suicidal thoughts return and his attention turns to his long-forgotten gun. It takes a little while for him to realise but he’s found his own raison d’être.
I was impressed with how Selby advanced the story, he ratchets it up at each stage and it culminates in quite an unexpected way. Selby’s style will probably divide readers but if you’ve read any of his other books then you should like Waiting Period as well. His stream-of-consciousness is done to perfection as we get a mix of inner thoughts, spoken word and dialogue but there’s never really any confusion over what’s going on; his style adds to the reading experience and isn’t devised to confuse the reader as some writers seem to do. The narrator is a brilliant character, full of anger, rage and thoughts of revenge; he’s brought to life by Selby and though we don’t empathise with him we can at least understand him. The narrator is not a monster, he’s a distorted version of us. For me, Selby can be compared with Louis-Ferdinand Céline, both for his style and his depiction of anger and rage, and that is high praise indeed.