“So. Now you know the worst thing I have ever done. I fucked my own family’s dinner.”
That line, one of the most memorable in modern literature, appears about halfway through Philip Roth’s humorous, sexually explicit monologue, which is prefaced by the following clinical definition: “Portnoy’s Complaint: A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”. Given the nature of those “extreme sexual longings”, the sexually-molested-dinner event shouldn’t come as a shock. But it does.
Alexander Portnoy is an unmarried, sexually frustrated, guilt-ridden American Jew who’s come of age at the dawn of the sexual revolution. It’s tempting to see him as Roth’s alter ego: when Alex begs his therapist to help make him a man – “Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” – we can hear the voice of the respectable boy from Newark, New Jersey, demanding to be heard. The fact is, though, that it’s Roth’s gift as a writer that convinces us his characters cannot be completely fictional. We believe in them the way we sometimes believe in an actor’s onscreen character. Rock Hudson was gay, you say? But didn’t he make love to Doris Day?
Framed as a therapy session, the book has Portnoy confessing every lustful urge, every shameful, intimate recollection to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. The roots of his dysfunction are, of course, embedded in his childhood, raised as he was by a loving but chronically constipated father and an intensely controlling mother. All of Alex’s neuroses, we are told, come down to his mother. Sophie Portnoy is, without doubt, the archetype of the Jewish mother: nagging, meddling, manipulative, and emasculating. (I’m reminded of a Jewish friend of mine whose mother called out, just as he was leaving to hitch-hike across Europe, “Don’t take any rides from strangers!”)
Desperate to please her, while inwardly rebelling against her, teenage Alex, the model student, the perfect son, finds release in masturbation on an almost heroic level. Self-abuse is seen as a subversive act; he “whacks off” at every spare moment. Anything, it seems, can serve as a prop for his favourite hobby – an empty milk bottle, a sock, a baseball mitt … even a piece of raw liver. (Hence the assault on the family’s dinner.)
Locked in the bathroom, Alex fantasizes about shiksas – blonde, blue-eyed, all-American girls, preferably well-endowed, who call him “Big Boy” and demand that he “beat it to a red hot pulp”. In this way, young Alex is not so very different from any other teenage boy on the planet. Well, apart from the liver, perhaps. But most young boys grow up. At least, I’d like to think they do. Alex does not. Two decades later, he’s still conflicted, still self-loathing, and still beating it to a pulp. Except now, instead of dreaming about mindless fucking and jerking off into his baseball mitt, 33-year-old Alex is bedding as many shiksas as he can find.
None of them, however, are good enough. When he finally meets Mary Jane Reed, the beautiful model (and possibly ex-call girl) who fulfills every one of his fantasies, he’s still not satisfied. She’s dumb, for one thing – what’s a nice Jewish man with an IQ of 158 doing with a girl who’s functionally illiterate? And so he dumps her in Rome, after first engaging in a threesome with a prostitute – twice. “You’ve made me as degraded as you!” she cries. Which is precisely the point. A self-hating character like Alex can’t simply fuck women, he has to find ways to demean them.
We’d call Alex a sex addict today, or worse. In the wake of Harvey Weinstein et al we don’t have much time for men who need to debase women in order to pump up their egos. There’s a scene near the end where Alex does his best to rape a young Israeli woman; only the fact that he loses his erection (“I can’t get a hard-on in this place,” he moans) prevents him from carrying it out. As for his mother – well, 50 years on Sophie doesn’t seem nearly as awful as we thought she was. At least she cares. At least she pays attention. And surely we’re past all that baloney about castrating mothers causing impotence in their sons. We are past it, aren’t we?
When it was published in 1969, the New Yorker hailed it as “one of the dirtiest books ever published”. And it may be. But Portnoy’s Complaint is more than literary porn. Its “lust-ridden, mother-addicted” protagonist raises questions about what it means to be a man, what it means to be Jewish – what it means to be alive in America in the 20th century.The Guardian‘s Chris Cox has argued that the reason the book stands up so well, so many years later, is because it “transcends its own vulgarity . . . by using sex to explore pretty much everything else: history, culture, identity, religion, politics”. One of its most poignant scenes is the death of 15-year-old Ronald Nimpkin, another “good Jewish boy” who lives in Alex’s building. “You couldn’t look for a boy more in love with his mother than Ronald!” the women say after Ronald is found dead, hanging from the shower head. In a particularly brilliant Rothism, he’s written his mother a note and pinned it to the collar of his shirt: “Mrs. Blumenthal called. Please bring your mah-jongg rules to the game tonight. Ronald.”
Roth went on to become one of the most awarded authors in America. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for American Pastoral and in 2001 in Prague he was awarded the inaugural Franz Kafka Prize. He wrote – brilliantly, in my opinion – right up to the moment he decided to stop, five years ago, at the age of 80. “I did what I could with what I had,” he said. Unlike some of his compatriots, he knew when to quit.
Irving Howe, who hated the book, dismissed it as “an assemblage of gags”. The worst thing anyone could do with Portnoy’s Complaint, he said, was to read it twice. Well, I read it twice and I loved it. Forgive me, Irving, but with all due respect, I think you’re a bit of a schmuck.