Review: ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ by Philip Roth

Portnoy's ComplaintPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Review lowered to three stars from four.)

Philip Roth is one of my favorite authors.

His books routinely leave me impressed, even awestruck, at his sheer facility with words. The descriptions of glovemaking in “American Pastoral”; the funhouse wit of “The Counterlife”; the haunting boldness of “Everyman” – in recent years, as I finished a Philip Roth book (even ones I tired of, such as the latter volumes of the Zuckerman trilogy), I thought that he was an author of boundless talent.

When he died last month, I thought I’d revisit his first major bestseller, “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I’d read it sometime in my early 20s — 30 years ago! — and I’m sure much of the humor (and more of the sex) was lost on me. How did it fit in the Roth canon, this rich, blazing torrent?

I’d say it fits in the bottom half – with his more forgettable works.

That’s not to say the book isn’t bold. Few novels have such energy, the pure headlong squawk of torment. Alexander Portnoy is a neurotic Jewish son of midcentury, smothered by his mother, shrugged off by his father, caught between 5,000 years of tradition and the anything-goes permissiveness of postwar America. His book-length monologue, to his new psychiatrist, is occasionally hilarious and often wince-producing.

But it’s also tiring. There’s something two-dimensional about Portnoy, who can’t free his mind from sex (whether it’s during his masturbational teen years or his free-living adulthood) and who lashes himself for not being a better person (his job is as a lawyer for the administration of New York mayor John Lindsay – a very late-‘60s position of hopeless progressive). His mother is dominant, shrill and without reason; his father, his poor constipated insurance agent father, is a cog in the lower reaches of establishment business. His sister barely registers beyond the fact that she manages to marry and perhaps continue the pattern. For all the funny/sad set pieces – the ejaculation-soaked livers, the description of a neighbor boy who died in the war – the book lacks weight.

And then there’s the Monkey, the stupid, hillbilly girlfriend Portnoy wrestles with (sometimes, it seems, literally) in the latter half of the novel.

I’m not sure whether the Monkey – so called for her banana-eating, and you know what THAT means – is meant to be sympathetic, underneath her sexual prowess and psychological insecurity. I doubt Roth gave her that much consideration, frankly. So she ends up yet another two-dimensional character, a sad harpy whom Portnoy regrets bedding, because sex has consequences, you know?

But even if Portnoy is desperate to free himself from her clutches – clutches that craze him with their misspelling of easy words – I would have expected more from Roth, who even in his mid-30s had proven to have depth along with wit. (See the short stories in “Goodbye, Columbus.”) Instead, she seems to be the foundation of the “Roth the woman-hater” label that followed him to the end of his life – a label that had some truth, but also sold him short, because, well, sometimes he was a full-bore misanthrope, never mind misogynist. (To be fair, he was also a full-bore humanist, even if a disappointed one.)

Ironically, the one section where “Portnoy’s Complaint” takes flight and starts to measure up to Roth’s other novels is near the end, when Portnoy takes a flight to Israel. Here, Portnoy gazes in wonder at the utopia carved out of the desert … and then impotently attempts to bed a local sabra, a kibbutznik and soldier. Though Portnoy’s side of the conversation is embarrassing, at least he’s paired with someone of strength (even if it’s a kind of clichéd late-‘60s Israeli strength, the little country that won the Six-Day War and made the desert bloom).

If only there had been more.

But in the end, we’re left with Portnoy’s rant and the final punchline, and that leaves “Portnoy’s Complaint” very much a book of its time. In 1969, when it was released, it was shocking to use the c-word and talk about sex so bluntly. It was shocking to air so much Jewish dirty laundry in public. Hell, it was shocking to fuck a piece of liver. (Now, we have the whole series of “American Pie” movies.)

Some of it’s still shocking, but more of it’s embarrassing and not worthy of the post-1980s Roth. He’s written in “The Facts” that he found the writing freeing, much of it coming as it did after the 1968 death of his first wife, Margaret Martinson, whom the Monkey was partially based on. If it made him a bolder writer, all to the best, but if I had to pick the best Roth novels, “Portnoy’s Complaint” would be far down the list.

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