#13: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), by Philip Roth

What is he doing to himself, this fool! this idiot! this furtive boy! This sex maniac! He simply cannot—will not—control the fires in his putz, the fevers in his brain, the desire continually burning within for the new, the wild, the unthought-of and, if you can imagine such a thing, the undreamt-of.

portnoy's

There’s a thing many readers do that surely drives authors up the wall, conflating an author with his characters. That by merely depicting certain thoughts or actions its creator must be tacitly endorsing them or offering them up as veiled confessions.*

What to do then in the case of Philip Roth, who fashioned an entire career out of a literary hall of mirrors? I never want to say that a character is a stand-in for the author simply because they share similar interests (as in the case of Ernest Hemingway and his fellow bullfighting aficionado Jake Barnes) — authors can’t be constrained by such limits — but Roth seems hellbent time and again on crossing them.

Which brings us to Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s infamous sex book. His ode to onanism, dramedy of debauchery, vaudeville of vulgarity. The book that made Roth’s name, the one that will be listed first in his obituary, and the one that showed what an underachiever Jim from American Pie really was.

It’s also the one that saddled Roth with a reputation that took years to shake. Traitor to his faith. Enemy of women. Obsessed with sex. There’s a scene in his novel Zuckerman Unbound when Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who has written a notorious bestseller caricaturing his family and his religion, sits at the deathbed of his father, whose last thought to his son is, “Bastard.”

But wasn’t he asking for this? I mean, just look at this book! The curse words! The casual misogyny! The sex, oh the endless sex! The Monkey! Who but the most deranged among us could come up with such torrential rivers of filth, am I right?

But maybe we should step back a moment.

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If you’re going to proclaim Portnoy’s Complaint an irredeemably obscene cesspool, you first need to know how the novel was conceived. Roth’s magic here is in presenting a monologue, essentially a book-length stand-up routine**, that feels like a spontaneously reckless confession but is as carefully assembled as any Henry James sentence.

During the 1960s, in the midst of what would become the longest dry spell in his otherwise prolific publishing career, Roth worked on several aborted projects that he would later strip for parts and fuse back together.*** The first, called The Jewboy, was a piece of slapstick that “treated growing up in Newark as a species of folklore.” The second project, a play entitled The Nice Jewish Boy, dug deeper into the relationship between two Jewish parents, their son, and the son’s shiksa girlfriend, but lacked the first story’s outsized energy.

His third attempt took the form of a scatological monologue delivered by a lecturer, “beside which the fetid indiscretions of Portnoy’s Complaint would appear to be the work of Louisa May Alcott.” And a fourth draft, entitled Portrait of the Artist, was the most autobiographical, mining Roth’s own Newark upbringing for its “particular Jewish ethos.”

Then came an epiphany: while teaching in the Iowa Writers Workshop, three of his graduate students submitted stories about a Jewish childhood:

Here then was the folktale — transmitted to me by my students as an authentic bit of American-Jewish mythology — that began to enlarge my sense of who these Portnoys might be … this time, rather than choosing as I had in The Jewboy to treat this folklore as folkore — emphasizing the fantastic, the charming, the quaint, the magical, the poetic — I determinedly took off in the opposite direction … I began to ground the mythological in the recognizable, the verifiable, the historical.

And thus Alexander Portnoy’s narration was born:  an amalgam of those four stalled projects, rooted in the reality of Roth’s own background, but honing in on the postwar Jewish family and deconstructing the mythical elements that had already seeped into the culture. Portnoy memorably whines that “he’s living in the middle of a Jewish joke,” but that’s contingent on everyone knowing what the joke is.

There was still one final ingredient that made the whole novel click, the savviest masterstroke**** of all: the psychoanalyst. Roth realized that having Portnoy speak to an off-screen analyst gave him carte blanche to hold nothing back, either in language or tone. And 40-plus years on, even if the language isn’t as shocking as it was then, it’s still bracing — and a riot — to see a character’s id run so completely wild.

Is Portnoy really as single-mindedly sex-crazed as he presents himself? Well, yes, to the extent that the imaginations of all adult men tend to be single-mindedly sex-crazed. But no, of course not: Portnoy is a straight-A student, a highly regarded city employee, loyal to his family, and in the end, not all that different from you and me — but we don’t see any of that in these therapy sessions. Of course we don’t. Why would we? Of course this is a caricature! How could it not be?

Now vee may perhaps to return. Yes?

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I am not Jewish. My childhood in North Jersey (and later North Carolina) bears almost no resemblance to the one described by Alex Portnoy, in which the dinner table was a nightly free-for-all and my bowel movements came under tight scrutiny. My mother did not threaten me with knives, nor was my father a hapless doormat.

But Alex Portnoy and I (and countless other U.S. males) do share one defining characteristic: guilt. I don’t want to speculate the extent to which guilt plays in motivating most decisions I make, but let’s just say that Portnoy’s own interior arguments, his clauses upon subclauses of torturous thought-speak, resonate with me to an uncomfortable degree:

How much longer do I go on conducting these experiments with women? How much longer do I go on sticking this thing into the holes that come available to it — first this hole, then when I tire of this hole, that hole over there … and so on. When will it end? Only why should it end! To please a father and mother? To conform to the norm? Why on earth should I be so defensive about being what was honorably called some years ago, a bachelor? … [W]hat’s the crime? Sexual freedom? In this day and age? Why should I bend to the bourgeoisie? … [W]hy must I explain myself? Excuse myself! Why must I justify with my Honesty and Compassion my desires! So I have desires — only they’re endless. Endless!

If people read this novel and can’t get past the profanity to see Portnoy trying quite movingly to break free from the religious and social strictures placed on him; if they can’t see that running alongside the riotous depictions of his overbearing parents is a begrudging admiration, an abiding respect; that despite all his outrageous sexual conquests he’s ultimately looking for something pretty traditional; and that the only way to truly get at any of this was to hold nothing back, to break Portnoy down to his basest desires; if they can’t see all of that, then they need a shovel: they didn’t dig deep enough.

How much of Philip Roth is found inside Alexander Portnoy is thus beside the point. Roth figured out something weird and wonderful about fiction: that by zeroing in on something that seems very particular and provincial, you can paradoxically achieve universality. Alex’s struggles both to fit in and break away are inside all of us, liver notwithstanding. Yes, read this novel and you will laugh and laugh hard, but you may be surprised at how poignant you find it. If you’re willing to do some digging.

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*Exhibit A: This summer, Alissa Nutting published a novel called Tampa, which is narrated by a schoolteacher whose raison d’être is to sleep with 14-year-old boys. Celeste Price’s narration is unapologetically smutty and laser-focused, but the novel’s success relies on the reader’s ability to dig below that surface layer to the subtle social critique lying below. Most readers cannot or will not do that digging.

**You can hear so much of Woody Allen and Larry David in Portnoy’s narration. When people say the times have caught up with this novel, that it no longer has the power to shock, perhaps this is another reason why: We fully absorbed its rhythms and frantically neurotic delivery.

***This background info comes from a 1974 Roth piece entitled “In Response to Those Who Have Asked Me: ‘How Did You Come to Write That Book, Anyway?”, later anthologized in Reading Myself and Others, pp. 33-41.

****No pun intended.

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Next up: Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest!

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