Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)
Alexander (Alex) Portnoy is a middle age Jewish male of undetermined mental stability. He has suffered like no other person alive due to the upbringing he received in New Jersey at the hands of his overbearing parents, especially his mother. This childhood ‘trauma’ is, he believes, directly responsible for his inability to maintain a loving and monogamous relationship with any woman. It leads to all manner of sexual antics and perversions (this review contains strong language and some depictions of an explicit sexual nature).
Alex relates his life to his psychiatrist as we, the readers, listen in horror and laughter to his tale of woe. His earliest memories are a sexualized image of his mother. It’s Oedipus gone barmy as Alex remembers how he would rush home from school to see the woman he thought was the most beautiful in the world. He revelations are uncomfortably erotic in nature as one Jewish stereotype after another is trotted out. His mother appears to relish the attention her young son lavishes upon her, even going so far in his memory as being perversely flirtatious, or so he interprets it.
It should be stated that there is no real plot to this book. It bounces from one era in Alex’s life to another, yet it all continues to fall into place nicely, an example of the great skill of Roth. There is one sketch after another. His boyhood; teenage years; attempts to lose his virginity; college adventures; working life, and a general commentary upon the world in which he finds himself.
We meet the women who played such a significant role in his life. Bubbles Giraldi, an eighteen-year-old who tried to give Alex his first handjob, which ended disastrously after he came in his own eye and thought himself permanently blind; Kay Campbell, a sweet girl from college who takes him home with her where he meets her normal family and ponders the Jewish madness of his own; Sarah Abbott Maulsby, a posh intern where he was working, that he treated badly as she was reluctant to give him head and, of course, Monkey, the beautiful hillbilly from Virginia who was as sexually liberated as any woman he had ever met and seemed perfect for Alex but, unfortunately, was not Jewish and/or appropriate for polite company.
Portnoy’s Complaint is a rollicking ride through the sexual angst of a Jewish man not yet emotionally mature. It’s a monologue, with no chapters and nothing to divide it but bouts of laughter at the extreme antics and attitudes of our storyteller. It’s one of the most coarse books you will ever read, as Alex regales us with his sexual improprieties. From his early addiction to masturbation, everywhere (including at home where he tries to ignore his protesting parents seeking use of the only bathroom that he has commandeered for such covert purposes), to his perverse yet more general inclinations, we are entertained by just how unseemly one man can be, and all whilst working for a government organisation dedicated to helping people.
This book caused uproar when first published. Prudes hated its crude and explicit content. Many Jewish intellectuals hated its one-dimensional and stereotypical depiction of a Jewish male and his dysfunctional family. Anti-Jews hated that a Jew could be so talented and progressive. Zionists questioned his portrayal of the relationship between a US Jew and the stolen land that is Israel. But all of this is to miss the point entirely. Roth is scathing in his accounts of both Jews and Goyim (as he refers to them repeatedly). He laments the insular nature of the Jewish people and their desire for some form of ethnic purity and separation from other people in the land of their birth or residence . He also derides non-Jewish attitudes towards Jews, and gloats at his precious victories in shagging non-Jewish women (sticking it to them on behalf of the downtrodden Jew).
Alex Portnoy states that he will not be defined by the Jewish identity. He rebels against the very idea of a separation fomented by a concept of Jewish ethnic supremacy. But he is also wholly incapable of casting off his upbringing and the learned behaviours therein. His socialist values do not allow him to view himself as superior to anyone else, yet he feels that way regardless, due to what he perceives as Jewish attitudes to those who are not of the Tribe.
It’s interesting that when he feels dejected and perhaps even insecure, after breaking up with Monkey in Greece, he flees to Israel which he ironically sees (if only temporarily) as the homeland of the Jews. Yet he does not feel at home there; feels no sense of connect even as he tries desperately to fit in. He gets a beating from a female Israeli former soldier who refuses to have sex with him. It’s a metaphor for the rejection of Alex, self-imposed, by the Zionist Jewish identity. He does not want to be stereotypically Jewish but cannot be anything other than exactly that. He’s been shaped that way. It’s easy to see why Jewish commentators might have taken issue with this novel.
This book was banned in Australia, and many libraries across the US refused to stock it. Rebel Voice expects that such moves did his sales no harm at all. But why such consternation about a book that deals with Jewish identity and sex?
OK, the book is not overly complimentary towards Jewish people in general. Only a Jewish author would get away with writing such content. However, if an English writer wrote of English people in similar terms, there would be much less uproar. Irish authors regularly traduce their own people. Muslims do poke fun at other Muslims and Christians are not shy when it comes to having a laugh at their own expense.
It may be that, when penning this, Philip Roth was intent on highlighting the sacred position that some Jewish people were and are demanding within US society. This tactic was promoted as a consequence of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the time of publication (1969), there was still a huge amount of anti-Judaism across the USA. It was a society dominated by WASP culture. Yet there were many very influential Jews, especially in Hollywood and the wider entertainment industry. A movement was building within that cadre to create the conditions whereby Jewish people were being granted, in some cases, de facto immunity for behaviour that would not be deemed acceptable for other identities. Positive discrimination was being shaped and enforced.
This was not the work of the majority of the Jewish population of the United States. Nor was it widely understood by society in general. But, should an observer look upon the US today, they will observe that charges of “anti-Semitism” and “Holocaust denier” are bandied about willy-nilly. That process began many decades before and Portnoy’s Complaint is drawing attention to it in a convoluted way. In the story, Portnoy mentions the term “self-hating Jew”, an offensive reference to Jews who refuse to buy into the collective separate-from-others Jewish identity. Alex is a US citizen, not a Jewish one. His parents are Jewish citizens resident in the US. Hence the conflict. It’s a complicated topic, and whether or not being Jewish is a religion or ethnicity or nationality is still fiercely debated.
Interestingly, across the US today, young Jewish men and women are increasingly seeing themselves as US citizens who happen to be Jewish in either faith, culture or heritage. They are refusing to be defined by Zionism and as such are actively opposed to the state of Israel. Many of them are protesting against free corporate trips to Israel for young Jews, trips which are designed to reinforce the Zionist Jewish identity. They feel no “national” connection with Israel. Their homeland is the USA. These independently-minded Jews are, today (50 years after Portnoy’s Complaint was first published), being referred to by Zionists as “self-hating” Jews.
Portnoy’s Complaint is a book with many levels. If taken on a superficial level, it is uproariously funny. It will make you laugh out loud. Rebel Voice suspects that one or both Bobby and Peter Farrelly, directors (and co-writers) of There’s Something About Mary, or perhaps co-writers John J Strauss or Ed Decter, read Portnoy’s Complaint, as there’s a scene in the book about the missing jizz from Alex’s masturbation that could have inspired the hit movie. Does Cameron Diaz owe her funky hair-gel to Philip Roth and his creation, Alex Portnoy?
If taken on a different plane, Portnoy’s Complaint is a commentary upon the character of the Jewish identity not only in the US, but globally. That makes it one of the most clever books you will find. Roth was lauded throughout his career as one of the greatest. He won a Pulitzer among a multitude of other awards. He was vehemently opposed to the Jewish religion in the same way as he opposed all other religions, being an ardent atheist. It’s easy to see why he did not fit into the Zionist model of expected behaviour. Philip Roth had courage and a brain, and a great big brain at that.
The author died on 22nd May, 2018 at the age of 85. He left behind a massively impressive body of work. Portnoy’s Complaint can be taken as semi-autobiographical in the way that East of Eden can. The locations mentioned in the book as those of Portnoy’s home town, are also those of Roth’s. Perhaps Roth was introducing us, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, to his own childhood. If so, then he must have been one hell of a laugh to hang around with. Philip Roth is buried in the cemetery of Bard College, a secular institution in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York. It is said that only one day after his burial, a pebble was placed on top of his headstone, in accordance with Jewish tradition. Perhaps, even in death, Roth (and Portnoy) were unable to fully escape that which they felt had oppressed them for so long. It was a nice gesture though.
Rebel Voice will leave you with these words of Roth’s, a man deserving of respect for striving to move on from a troubled and conflicted identity to one where he was able to celebrate the best of what his Jewish heritage had given him, and all that with which secular life had favoured him.
“When the whole world doesn’t believe in God, it’ll be a great place”
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. This is a fantastic book in many ways. It’s highly entertaining, comical and profound. It’s a clever and informed observation upon the Jewish character in the US, and the struggle that one Jewish man faces to escape the conditioning of his childhood, and find a comfortable place for himself in modern US society. It’s controversial and uses strong and explicit language and imagery, so it’s not for the faint-of-heart. But if you can weather such, then this is an important book that is rightly regarded as a classic. Highly recommended.