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Portnoy’s Complaint ~ A Capsule Book Review

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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

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