If you’re walking along the street and you come to a Packard dealership on a corner, you know you’ve traveled back in time.
Portnoy’s Complaint ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Alexander Portnoy’s father, Jack, is a downtrodden insurance salesman, under-appreciated professionally and personally. He is perpetually constipated (presumably from worry) and obsessed with his bowel movements. Alexander Portnoy’s mother, Sophie, is a stereotypical Jewish mother, a loud-mouthed, opinionated yenta who knows all the clichés and doesn’t mind using them liberally. (These two elder Portnoys are, as Alexander says, “masters of guilt.”) Alexander Portnoy’s older sister, Hannah, is a plain, quiet, mousey girl who knuckles down under Jewish parental authority and makes her parents happy by marrying a nice Jewish boy and becoming a mother.
Alexander Portnoy himself is a sex-obsessed adolescent and then a sex-obsessed adult. He is complex-ridden, psychologically “constipated,” unable to find the one thing or one person that will make him whole and satisfied. He has lots of girlfriends but, when all is said and done, he doesn’t really like any of them very much. He is confused by love and its various meanings. He is “screwed up,” presumably by his Jewishness and by his parents’ own particular brand of lunacy. When he reaches his thirties and still has not taken a wife and “settled down,” his parents wonder where they went wrong.
This is Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s satirical, fantastical (at times), outrageous, irreverent (nothing is sacred), sexually explicit, compulsively readable, funny, 1969 novel. (It must have offended a lot of Puritans back in 1969.) It’s an unusual novel, a novel not in the traditional sense of the word, but more of a loosely structured, extended monologue by Alexander “Alex” Portnoy (born 1933) to his “therapist,” Dr. Spielvogel. (In talking about his life, A. P. has a lot of territory to cover from his approximately 33 neurotic years.)
Fifty years after its initial publication, Portnoy’s Complaint has stood the test of time and stands as an American classic. It was chosen by Modern Library as number 52 on the list of the hundred greatest novels in the English language of the twentieth century.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp
State Line ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is a re-post.)
My name is Charles A. Rilke. Some people call me Charlie but mostly I’m known as just plain Charles. I had been married for twelve years and had two children. We lived the American dream in a mortgaged-to-the-hilt ranch house in the suburbs. I had a job I didn’t like very much as an editor at a publishing firm. I had been with the company for seven years and had been passed over for promotion in favor of younger, less-experienced people. I hated every minute I spent in the corporate world. I wanted to throw everything down and become a writer. Not practical, you say? You’re probably right.
Every morning I got into my aging Pontiac and drove the twelve miles to work. The morning drive could be fraught with drama, depending on the weather, time of year and traffic conditions. A sudden thunder storm, a little bit of rain or unexpected snow flurries? A cardboard box fell off the back of a truck onto the highway? Any ugly and unexpected occurrence on the highway might make me up to an hour late for work. Late again? Don’t worry about it. Just make up the time at the end of the day.
My gas tank was nearly empty, so on Monday morning on my way to work I stopped at Gus Gray’s to fill up. Right away I saw there was a new attendant manning the pumps. He smiled at me as I pulled up and rolled down my window. His name, stitched on the pocket of his shirt, was Trevor.
“Fill it up?” he asked as I rolled down my window.
“Why not?” I said, devil may care.
After he pumped the gas, he cleaned my windshield.
“New here?” I asked.
“I started last week.”
“You like it?”
“Who likes pumping gas?”
“Probably nobody,” I said.
I didn’t think about Trevor again until the next time I needed gas and stopped in at Gus Gray’s. He was standing beside the pumps as if I was the only customer all day. He put the gas in my car and cleaned my windshield and before I left I asked him to check the oil.
As he raised the hood, I got out of the car and stood beside him. I watched him as he bent over under the hood. He checked the oil and said it was okay and closed the hood.
“You’re not like the others,” I said, saying what I was thinking without considering whether it was appropriate or not.
“How’s that?” he said.
“Well, for one thing, you look clean.”
He laughed. “Nobody notices.”
“People just want their gas. They don’t care if the person who pumps it is clean or not.”
He was about thirty or thirty-two. He had brown hair, what little I could see of it under his cap. His face was covered with brown-blond stubble, just enough to look good on him. He was trim-waisted, shirt tucked neatly into his pants. He wore new-looking work boots.
“Gus Gray knows who to put out front to attract the customers.”
“Are you flirting with me?” he asked.
“Of course not!” I said. “What do you think I am?”
The next time I went into Gus Gray’s, it was for an oil change. I hoped Trevor would be there. It was raining, so he was inside at the cash register. I gave him the keys to my car and sat down inside while he went to move my car. When he came back in, he seemed to have forgotten I was there. I got up and bought a soda out of the vending machine.
“Slow day?” I asked.
“What?” he said.
“I said it’s a slow day because of the rain.”
“Oh, yeah. People don’t get out if they don’t have to.”
“Then why am I here?” I said.
He smiled and shrugged and I felt like a babbling fool for trying to be clever.
I sat back down with my soda and, after I had drunk about half of it, he said, “Gus is off today so I have to take care of any customers.”
“It’s always nice when the boss is gone, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah. Gus is all right but he runs a tight ship.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“You know what they say, though. It’s a job.”
“I don’t like my job very much, either,” I said.
“What do you do?”
“I work for Ellis and Peacock downtown.”
“What’s Ellis and Peacock?”
“You’re a publisher?”
“I’m an editor.”
“What does an editor do?”
“I make sure copy is ready for publication.”
“Stuff that other people write.”
“If you don’t like it, why don’t you quit?”
“I have a mortgage and two kids.”
“And a wife?”
“Yeah, a wife, too.”
“Most people have at least one wife running around,” he said.
“How about you?” I asked. “Do you have a wife?”
“No, not me,” he said.
Over the next three months or so I saw Trevor every time I stopped in for gas. We usually exchanged a few words of no importance that I remembered days later. He knew me from other customers and recognized me (at least my car) when I drove in, but other than that I had no way of knowing if he had ever given me a thought.
Foolishly (or not), I began thinking a lot about Trevor and even dreaming about him. When I turned off the light at night I saw his beard-stubbled face above his crisp work shirt, his clean fingernails and his one chipped tooth when he smiled. I wanted to know him better. I wanted to speak to him away from the station. Would he think I was a lunatic if I asked him to meet me in a public place somewhere? Would he tell Gus Gray and have me banned from the station? Would they call the police and have me arrested?
Why Trevor, you might ask, out of all the others? Well, I didn’t have an answer for that. I think, from the first moment I saw him, I saw past the shiny surface to what was underneath and recognized him for a fellow lost traveler.
On a Friday morning, looking forward to two days at home doing as I pleased, I stopped in for gas. I had finally decided to ask Trevor to have lunch with me one day or to meet me after work for a drink.
He wasn’t waiting at the pump as usual and he didn’t come bounding out of the station. The weasel they called Johnny Walker Red was there instead. He had long red hair that made him look like Rita Hayworth. I was sickened at the thought of having anybody but Trevor pump my gas.
“Where’s Trevor?” I asked Johnny Walker Red.
“Don’t know no Trevor.”
“He works here.”
“Oh, yeah! I forgot his name. I think Gus said he’s sick or something. In the hospital.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“When’s he coming back?”
“I dunno. I ain’t his keeper.”
I paid for my gas and went on to work. I felt low and unhappy all day long. I only wanted people to leave me alone. I couldn’t wait to get back home in the evening so I could be alone with my thoughts.
I waited a few days and went back to the station, hoping Trevor would have returned. This time Gus Gray waited on me.
“Where’s Trevor?” I asked him.
“He called and asked for a few days off. I think he’s been in the hospital.”
“Do you know what’s wrong with him?”
“Is he coming back?”
“I guess so. He didn’t say.”
It was about this time that I started having trouble at work, which involved enforced overtime. We had missed a couple of deadlines recently and the boss was ready to bring out the guillotine, set it up in the lobby, and start using it. We were all going to have to knuckle down and work extra hours every day just to get caught up. It moved me one step closer to quitting but not without punching a few people in the nose first.
The next time I stopped in to fill up at Gus Gray’s, Trevor was standing at the pump. I was so happy to see him I could have jumped out of the car and embraced him.
“May I help you, sir,” he asked, as I rolled down my window.
“You’ve been gone,” I said.
“I missed you.”
“I also missed seeing you,” he said.
“Fill it up,” I said.
When he brought me the change from the twenty-dollar bill I used to pay for my gas, he gave me one of Gus Gray’s business cards. He had crossed through the print on the front and written his name and phone number on the back.
“In case you ever want to talk,” he said.
I drove on to work, happier than I had been for long time. The good feeling lasted through the entire day. I was kind to my co-workers and felt calm and relaxed. I took an extra long lunch, by myself, and walked three blocks away from the office and had a good fish dinner at a better place than I usually go.
That evening, while my wife and kids were watching TV, I went to the phone with the card in my hand. Heart pounding, I picked up the receiver and then put it back again. I hadn’t planned on calling him at that moment; it was only a dry run to show myself I could do it if I wanted to.
On top of all the overtime at work, I began having trouble at home. My wife and I began arguing about small things. She had a biting tongue and so did I. A lot of the self-restraint I prided myself on had left me. I hated arguing and bickering but I couldn’t seem to help myself. My parents had had a miserable marriage and I seemed to be following their example.
The fight of all fights came on a Sunday. I had been hoping to have a peaceful day at home, resting up for the upcoming week of hell at work, but my wife and I started arguing at the breakfast table. After several hours of anger and tension, I packed a bag and went to a motel so I could be alone.
After I checked into the motel, I had a nap and then a quiet meal in the motel restaurant. After dinner, I sat down on the bed and called Trevor’s number. He answered on the third ring.
He knew from the first word who I was. I didn’t have to explain myself. He said he was expecting me to call any time.
“Gus fired me,” he said.
“I’m too slow. I spend too long with each customer, while other customers are waiting, and I’m not assertive enough. He wanted me to push products to customers. Spark plugs, fan belts, wiper blades, motor oil, and all that kind of stuff. I told him I’m not a salesman, so he fired me.”
“I’m going away and I want you to go with me,” I said.
“I’m going to quit my job in the morning. I hate it and I’m tired of being unhappy. I’ll pick you up wherever you say at nine o’clock, so pack a bag.”
“That’s a little impulsive, isn’t it?” he said.
“Probably, but I don’t care.”
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long will we be gone?”
“I don’t know.”
In the morning I was up at six o’clock. After breakfast, I called my place of employment and instructed the secretary to tell the boss I was quitting. I’d never have to see or speak to that evil son of a bitch again. I’d mail them a letter of resignation later if they had to have it in writing.
I put my stuff in the car and checked out of the motel. I stopped at the bank and withdrew eight hundred dollars in cash from my savings account and arrived at the address Trevor had given me at ten minutes to nine. He was waiting outside with a small suitcase. I asked him how he was, but he didn’t seem to want to talk so that was altogether fine with me. I didn’t feel much like talking in the morning either.
I didn’t know where I was going. I went out through town to the highway and headed west.
At lunchtime I had driven a hundred and twenty miles. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the highway at the edge of a small town. We sat across from each other in a sunny booth.
He told me a little bit about himself. His parents, both dead, had been alcoholics. His mother kicked him out of the house as soon as he graduated from high school. He had had an older brother who died from a drug overdose. He had been married briefly at twenty-one to a girl he hardly knew. The marriage lasted less than a year. For the last ten years or so he had gone from job to job, looking for something, he wasn’t sure what.
“A life of failure and unhappiness,” he said.
“So is everybody else’s,” I said.
I asked him why he had been in the hospital and reluctantly he told me. When he was three years old, he had rheumatic fever and it left him with rheumatic heart disease, from which he would probably die by the age of forty. He made it clear he didn’t want sympathy or pity.
“When it comes, I’ll be ready for it,” he said.
I drove all day in a westerly direction, stopping only at mealtimes and to fill my car up with gas. Neither one of us talked about where we were going or what we’d do when we got there.
At eleven o’clock that night, after driving for fourteen hours, I had to stop. We found a quiet, inviting-looking motel with red-and-green neon signs just off the highway and I engaged a room.
We talked for a while and watched an old black-and-white movie on TV. When the movie was over, he said he wanted to take a shower. When he came out of the bathroom, he got into bed naked. I kissed him and he let me. Finally I had the thing I had dreamed about.
After a long silence, he asked, “What state are we in?”
“Does it matter?” I said.
“Not as long as I’m with you.”
“Do you want to go back?” I asked.
“Nothing to go back for. No family, no home to speak of, no job.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll find another job.”
“I don’t want another job. I’ve had plenty of jobs. I’ve reached the end. Of something.”
“What are you saying?”
“Ever thought about suicide?” he asked.
“I’ve thought about a lot of things.”
“I read a story once about a suicide pact between two men.”
“A suicide pact?”
“Yeah. It seemed like a good idea.”
I knew what he meant. I wanted to see what he’d say.
“Think how lonely it is if you do it by yourself,” he said. “If you do it with somebody you care about, it’s not so lonely.”
I showed him the gun I had in my suitcase.
“I have two bullets,” I said.
He smiled as if he thought I was making a joke and then he knew I wasn’t.
“It’s all right with me,” he said.
“Are you sure it’s what you want?”
“I’ve wanted it for a long time. Make sure the bullet does its job.”
“At point-blank range? How could I miss?”
“Wait until I’m asleep.”
“In the back of the head,” I said. “You won’t feel a thing.”
I sat there in the chair beside the bed with the gun in my right hand. He turned over in the bed away from me and pulled the blanket up under his chin and went to sleep.
There was just enough light coming in from the window that I could see him. I watched him all night, listening to him breathe and sigh, and I knew he was the only person in the world I had ever loved.
He slept through the night and when he woke up a little after daylight he turned and looked at me.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“It’s time to get up and get dressed,” I said.
We were on our way again in a half-hour. We crossed one state line and then another and then another. I would keep driving until I came to the end of the North American continent and when that happened I’d know what came next.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp