Author: Philip Roth
Original Publication: 1969
Genre: Fiction, Monologue
#378 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die
Portnoy is Alexander Portnoy, a 33-year old lawyer from New Jersey reliving his Jewish childhood from the safety of a therapist’s couch, and oy vey, can he complain! To be fair, however, he has a lot to kvetch about. Portnoy is a chronic masturbator and a sexual deviant with an oppressive mother, a chronically constipated father, and a crippling superiority complex. The book is less a story than an (often very funny) monologue by its titular character, who seems to blame many of his problems on his Judaism, and by default, the family who raised him that way. I read an interview with the author who said that this book – which made him famous – was his “let ‘er rip!” novel. Let it rip he did – the book was banned in its time for its graphic detailing of masturbation and frank discussion of sexuality, deviant and otherwise. Such things simply were not done in popular literature of the time.
Portnoy begins by describing his childhood, and I was struck by how the book treats complaining about one’s family/religion/lot in life as almost a cultural birthright of the Jewish people. His mother reminded me of Estelle Harris’s Seinfeld characterization of George Costanza’s mother. She’s loud, abrasive, long-suffering, smothering, meddling, and any number of other “Jewish mother” stereotypes. Another thing which interested me is the degree to which Portnoy feels shafted because he is Jewish, and feels that everyone is prejudiced against Jews; yet he is ridiculously hypocritical about persecuting others. He’s defensive about his faith and upbringing while simultaneously hating and resenting it, and he’s also judgmental and disdainful of goyim (non-Jews.) One scene in particular describes the first time he has dinner at his Christian girlfriend’s house (his first meal in a Christian household), and him contemplating putting toilet paper down to protect the seat before he uses their bathroom.
Despite his contempt for goyim, the girls he obsessively chases are all shiksa (non-Jewish women,) and he wrestles with that as well – a term since coined by Seinfeld as “shiksappeal”; that is, the attraction by Jewish men to gentile women. The book continues through his early adulthood, detailing his penchant for publicly pleasuring himself and his disastrous relationships with women. He’s always secretly convinced that the women look down on him for his Jewish background, while he simultaneously looks down on them for theirs. “Don’t date shiksas,” his father tells him. “Your first fight, and that’s all they know how to call you.” A reference, of course, to a girl who called him a ‘dirty Jew son of a bitch’ when they fought.
The crux of the novel, and Portnoy’s actual complaint, is his inability to reconcile his sexual proclivities with his religious upbringing. The title of the novel has since been employed as a common turn of phrase meaning just that: one struggling to reconcile his desires with his ethics may be said to be suffering from “Portnoy’s Complaint.” It’s a moral Catch-22, to employ another expression from a famous novel’s title – his religious background dictates that the things that he desires are immoral and wrong, so he feels ashamed when he does them anyway, and because he sees these activities as shameful, he derives no pleasure from them. The result is a spiral that makes him more and more miserable as he resents his background for preventing him from enjoying himself, and resents his desires for failing to provide fulfillment.
Fun Fact: The novel sparked an uproar in the Jewish community for its irreverent portrayal of Jewish identity, and was on Australia’s “Banned Imports” list. Many have speculated as to how much of the novel is Roth’s imagination, and how much is autobiographical.
Bother if: I thought the novel was very funny, but my enjoyment of it might perhaps have been enhanced if I had known more Yiddish, or been Jewish myself. Coming from such a dissimilar background, I found the book fascinating from a sociological standpoint. Those with similar backgrounds may enjoy it on a different level because they are able to identify with the family/tradition/religious aspects. Yiddish words and expressions are employed quite a bit, so it was fun for me to look them up and compare the context with the traditional meaning of the words.
Don’t bother if: You’re offended by extremely coarse/foul language or graphic descriptions of deviant sex acts, some involving group sex, props, prostitution, orgies, and worse. It’s not a story everyone would enjoy, and is almost certainly not appropriate for younger readers.