Friday, September 30, 2011

#45 - "Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth

As I mentioned on Monday, I've come to regret the time I borrowed Portnoy's Complaint from the library, and returned it without reading it.  Not only have I returned it without having read it, I've also renewed it seven times without having read it.  But like Mark McGwire and steroids, that's all in the past and I'm here to talk about the present.  My 45th book was one of my favorites, I don't think there's really any other way to put it.  Funny, engaging, interesting, realistic, satirical, truthful; it had everything.

Alexander Portnoy is in his early 30's, works in a very prestigious position with the Mayor's office, and is obsessed with sex and loves his penis.  Of course this might not really be any great revelation, as it probably describes most men in their early 30's; they just might not work for the Mayor.

The book reads as a confession, from Portnoy to his psychiatrist.  He relives his past, telling his stories of growing up Jewish in Newark, his early obsessions with sex, his over-bearing parents, and the guilt he so often feels as a result.  He feels guilty for his obsession with sex, wondering why he has no desire to settle down, get married and have a few kids.  But despite his guilt, he isn't ready to change anything.

Often I enjoy a book because I feel an attachment to the protagonist, whether it be because I think I would enjoy their company like in The Berlin Stories or because I just find them so damn interesting as in Rabbit, Run.  Alexander Portnoy falls somewhere in between; there are times when I think he'd be a great buddy, and other times he's infuriating, but he's always fascinating.

Portnoy's Complaint was probably the most vulgar book, other than Naked Lunch, that I've read so far from The List.  I only use 'vulgur' because I can't think of a better word; there isn't anything offensive, it's just very descriptive about Portnoy's sexual exploits.  Said Time magazine in their 1969 review, "no one has written so amusingly and yet so crassly about sex since Henry Miller."  It was the sexual descriptions that led to the initial success of the book when it was first released, but it is the brilliant writing that made it a literary classic.

It was also a very funny book.  Roth writes Portnoy's parents so well, it leaves the readers with a crystal clear image of what they would be like, as stereo-typical, post-war Jewish parents.  I can think of so many movies that portray these same type of characters, and I'm pretty sure they all use Portnoy's Complaint as a template.  It was described at the time of its release as "more laughs per page than any novel in recent memory, Catch-22 and The Sot Weed Factor notwithstanding."  And it may be the only book I've ever read, in which the last line made me laugh out loud, as if it served as a punchline for the rest of the book.  I can't tell you what that is, of course, you'll have to read it yourself.

You can read a review in Tima magazine from February 21, 1969, right here.

I'm moving on to Go tell it to the Mountain by James Baldwin for my next book.

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