#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.


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.

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