I have heard Philip Roth's name bandied about for years, as one of America's literary giants, along with the likes of Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer. Portnoy's Complaint
happened to catch my eye from the bookshelves recently, and I decided to give it a try.
I found that many people from my generation had read Portnoy in their younger years, mainly due the prevalence of sex in the book. It does contain the famous (infamous?) passage of young Alex Portnoy, using a piece of liver for a sex toy, and then later sitting down with his family to eat that same piece of liver for dinner. Cultural experts cite this seminal moment in literature as a pre-cursor to the pie scene in the film "American Pie."
The premise of Portnoy's Complaint is right in the title; it is a 274 page rant by Alex Portnoy to his psycho-analyst. Portnoy, being Jewish, has much to say about his upbringing, and particularly his mother. He both rejects his Jewish culture, chasing after blond shiksas; and yearns to once again be part of the youth he remembers among his family, in a predominately Jewish neighborhood.
I was immediately struck by the quality of Roth's writing in this early work, Portnoy's Complaint
being his fourth novel. The voice of Alex Portnoy — which I'm sure is a thinly disguised version of Roth himself — is intense and intelligent, but also misogynistic, and self-centered. He is not a likeable character by any means, but his tale is told with biting humor, and sarcastic wit. It's quite compelling even though I couldn't identify culturally with the character of Alex Portnoy. I did find though that I had to read the book in small doses. A little bit of Alex Portnoy's complaint goes a long way.