52. Portnoy’s Complaint

Oy Vey!
Modern Library # 52

1967, Philip Roth

This may perhaps be the most difficult Top 100 Book Review I’ll ever do. Not because I loved it so much I can’t find the words and not because I hated it either. No… it’s because “Portnoy’s Compaint” is so downright dirty and sex-filled that I wouldn’t know how to properly describe 2/3 of the book to the family audience who gather ’round their PC’s to read CTMQ every night.

If I had an alternate blog… hoo boy, let me tell you! Roth does not pull punches here and no epithet is left unsaid. Yup, even the dreaded word that every woman hates more than anything in the world. About 20 times. Now that I’ve given you the somewhat false impression that the book is merely a smut festival, I’ll try to give my review.

Roth uses a very interesting convention to tell the story: Alexander Portnoy is a 33 year old highly successful single Jewish guy lying on his psychiatrist’s couch. What transpires is a 308 page stream-of-conciousness monologue wherein Portnoy frames his life-history as one of misery at the hands of his overbearing Jewish mother followed by an endless series of sexual conquests – many of which are solo.

Within the first hour or so of reading, one realizes a few things. One, the “character” of Howard Stern that we grew up listening to is either a complete ripoff of the Portnoy character or every Jewish boy who grew up in the 40′s and 50′s in the metro NYC area really is a nebbish Woody Allen character obsessed with sex. There are lines in the book I could swear I heard Stern approximate years ago – “My mother did this” and “My mother did that” and as a result “I can’t do this right and I’m miserable.” Two, the famous scene from “American Pie” where the protagonist, shall we say, “enjoys” a cherry pie in privacy? Roth laid the groundwork with the pubescent Alex, shall we say, “enjoying” some fresh liver. Seriously.

But thank goodness for Stern, or else I’d have never understood all the Yiddish exclamations Roth writes. What is it with Jewish-American mothers? Is there something truthful about the fictional Jerry Seinfeld mom, Kyle Broflovski mom, or Portnoy’s mom? From the book: “…A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy, till they die!” Such anger… such venom… such insight into the immaturity of Seinfeld and Stern!

But more than just sex, the book is about the post WWII Jewish experience in America. How they adapted and made a living, how the immigrant parents instilled academics and values in their children. It’s very well written and certainly funny in many instances. I had high hopes for “Portnoy’s Complaint” because of all the things I’ve heard about Philip Roth. But again, as I’m realizing with many of these Top 100 Books (coincidentally, several of which Portnoy tries to get his illiterate sex machine girlfried, aka “The Monkey,” to read in the book) are in the Top 100 because they are “groundbreaking” above all else. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable – it is.

As Alex Portnoy says, he wants to “Put the ID back in ‘YID’.” And in this book, he definitely does that.

Hoang Completed: 2006, Rating: 5
Steve Completed: 2006, Rating: 6.5

Leave a Comment

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism