As I read (and guffawed), I must admit I questioned its place on the Modern Library’s list, but after much vacillating on my part, I looked beyond the mere details to understand why it landed on the list.
We find 33-year-old Alexander Portnoy, a successful attorney working as the Assistant Commissioner of Opportunity for the city of New York, on the couch of his analyst, Dr. Spielvogel. The couch serves as the novel’s setting as we are subjected to Portnoy’s “complaints”, including graphic details on the many ways he satiates his immense sexual appetite. Using the doctor-patient session as his narrative vehicle was quite genius as it allowed for painfully forthright and lewd conversation that would have seemed superfluous in another setting.
The story opens in Newark, NJ where the Portnoy family reside within the borders that define their Jewish neighborhood (hmm so did Roth…). Set during the 1960’s sexual revolution, Portnoy’s canvas reveals the conflicting lure of freedom with familial obligations, with sexual gratification winning out time and again. We follow Alex from childhood to adulthood and see his perception of life; his anxious mother and doting father, reverse anti-semitism, suicide, sexual promiscuity, etc.
Mary Jane Reed, aka The Monkey, so named by Portnoy is an illiterate model from West Virginia who at first appears to have a sexual appetite that matches Portnoy, but she comes to understand that even that is not enough to satisfy Portnoy, who begins to wonder if he will ever find fulfillment.
Naomi, aka The Jewish Pumpkin (don’t ask, just read the book) is my personal favorite. She lives in Israel in a kibbutz after serving in the Israel army and is an actual humanitarian as opposed to Portnoy, as she unabashedly points out. Portnoy becomes quickly infatuated with her and when she returns to his hotel, she admonishes his sexual suggestions. Not taking no for an answer, he attempts to continue and a physical altercation ensues. After he overpowers the unwilling Naomi, Portnoy suffers from erectile dysfunction and is berated and labeled “pig” and bid adieu with a swift kick to the chest.
Cousin Heshie falls for Alice Dembosky much to the disappointment of his family. In fact, they are so outraged, Heshie’s father pays Alice a visit where he explains that Heshie is dying, but does not know it and needs to be alone with no excitement that could kill him. Alice agrees to end their relationship so Heshie can “live” which prompts him to enlist where he is promptly killed during the Normandy invasion.
What I enjoyed were the distinct voices which I could hear quite clearly. What was disappointing were the unresolved relationships in Portnoy’s life; mother/son, father/son, pregnant girlfriend from college, etc. Although this may have been the intent, I do like to see how things turn out.
Roth is the first author from the Modern Library’s list that is still living, so I suppose I could try for a real sit down…yeah, anyway. If possible, I’d like to hear about growing up in Newark and his recollections of the freedom of the 60’s.
My rating for Portnoy’s Complaint is an 8 out of 10.
To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.
Please share your own reviews or comments by using the link below.