Portnoy's Complaint III
Bill Long 11/30/08
Roth's Literary "Obsession"
Though Roth's portrait of the obsessive Jewish family and the obsessive urge for edgy sexual expression of Alex would have "carried" the book, it is his laceratingly-funny, arrestingly-hilarious descriptions of people and situations that ultimately make this book a minor classic. One scene describes one of Alex's biggest conquests--of a young woman he calls "The Pilgrim," a 22 year-old fresh-from-college flaxen beauty, whose other flaxen beauty was her palomino, stabled with her in Poughkeepsie when she attended Vassar.
Roth sets the tone for their meeting in one rolling tsunami of humor after another. Alex was 26 in 1959 (actually, the same year that Roth also turned 26) and was a staffer on the House subcommitting investigating the television quiz scandal--to any alive at the time, a brief but intense tempest. It was a perfect occasion for a "closet socialist like myself: commercial deceit on a national scale, exploitation of the innocent public, elaborate corporate chicanery" (p. 232). And, atop the heap of corruption sat the one who kept winning all the time, but was fed the right answers, "Charlatan Van Doren." Of course, Van Doren, a 30 year-old Columbia University English Professor, whose father had won the Pulitzer Prize and mother was a novelist and writer, was the acme, the very tip of the tip of the WASP accomplishment ladder. To show him actually cheating in an area in which he should have had the knowledge, produced almost too much joy for a Jew like Alex. My goodness, the WASP's were almost as bad as the Jews, he thought! Then he said:
"Yet I was one happy yiddel down there in Washington, a little Stern gang of my own, busily exploding Charlie's honor and integrity, while simultaneously becoming lover to that aristocratic Yankee beauty whose forebears arrived on these shores in the seventeenth century" (p. 233).
So, I am so caught up in Alex's triumph of exposing Van Doren that I forgot for a moment that his real reason for telling the story was to tell the reader how he got into the er....life of Sarah Abbott Maulsby. Then, he "trumps" it all by the famous Roth "one-liner":
"Phenomeon known as Hating Your Goy and Eating One Too" (p. 233).
Continuing with Sarah
But then, the laughter continues as he describes Sarah's preppie existence. She used "barf" for "omit," "ticked off" for "angry, "a howl" for "funny" and "teeny" for "tiny." Then, the thing that really drove Alex up the wall were the nicknames of all of her preppie friends. We had "Poody and Pip and Pebble, Shrimp and Brute and Tug, Squeek, Bumpo, Baba." Then, Roth's "trump line":
"it sounded, I said, as though she had gone to Vassar with Donald Duck's nephews" (p. 233).
What can you do other than howl in delight? Roth so skillfully paints the world of Jewish guilt, shame, delight at others' failings, desire for revenge and accomplishment, along with Alex's particular sexual indulgences, that you just don't know what will be next, but you know you will love it.
For example, after telling us about the gradual dissolution of the relationship with "The Pilgrim" he turns to the supposed setting of the novel (a patient telling his psychaitrist his story) and says:
"What I'm saying, Doctor, is that I don't seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds--as though through f...ing I will discover America. Conquer America--maybe that's more like it. Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthrop, General Washington, now Portnoy. As though my manifest destiny is to seduce a girl from each of the forty-eight states" (p. 235).
You almost wonder what he might have said about Alaska after the futile Vice-Presidential run of Sarah Palin in 2008! I am sure that some have asked him....
Usually after I read such a brilliantly-alive literary work such as this, I want to sink myself into it and master all the "one-liners" so that I can be sure to integrate them into my conversation and life. Most people I meet, however, are the opposite. They smile and enjoy the book, praise the author for his skills and then move on back to their work of investing other people's money or working on their legal cases. But I simply want to stop, to re-read the passages, to see if there is a way simply to absorb the humor, irony, spirit, tone of a work like this (as I do with some of the language of Joyce, Lawrence or Golding) and then mix it all up inside me so that I can speak, and then write, with such energy, verve, insight, knowledge and passion that my thoughts leap from my pen into the reader's/listener's heart. Now wouldn't that be something not simply to dream about but also to see happen?