Tag Archives: Portnoy’s Complaint

Dear Philip Roth,

Portnoy's ComplaintAlready a seasoned kvetch in 1968 when I first read Portnoy’s Complaint, I missed no opportunity to gripe, but my complaints were clichés: my husband didn’t help with the dishes, my parents were hopelessly ignorant and neurotic, my high school students unruly, and my principal a no-nothing nabob. Imagine my relief when I read Alex’s 300-odd page whine! That wordsmith turned grousing into an art form worthy of emulation. I began to refine and enrich my own rants, in anticipation of the day they would appear in print. I would kvetch my way to literary success.

One of the factors I kvetched about, mostly to myself, was Judaism, specifically my own Jewishness. Like many of my pre-Boomer cohorts, I was into assimilating rather than embracing my embarrassing immigrant roots. When I was growing up, Danny Fisher, Anne Frank, Molly Goldberg, and Marjorie Morningstar had been familiar and photogenic Jewish protagonists. But the Portnoys were familiar people, family. I wasn’t even conscious then of how moved I was to find my warty relatives between the covers of a book where everyone, even non-Jews, could read about them. I analyzed Catcher in the Rye with my students, but Holden Caufield struck me as a pale and humorless version of Portnoy. It would take me decades to write a novel peopled with Jews, not a few of whom are less than perfect and far from photogenic. But when I finally did, your bold and riotous exposé of Alex Portnoy’s coming of age in the bosom of his foible-filled family was very much on my mind.

Alex’s hormonally inspired outpourings legitimized my own libidinous urges and, years later, frees me to write about desire, one of your favorite themes. The scene in which the horny teenaged boy enjoys a testosterone-laced tryst with  the liver his mom plans to serve for dinner struck me as a triumph of authorial chutzpah. When he opens that fridge door, he also opens the door to describing erotic adventures more realistic than romantic. I certainly didn’t rush to record my own far less resourceful and relatively banal forays into sexual satisfaction, but now, whenever I do write a sex scene, I begin by remembering Alex and that liver. Your insistence on telling us about Alex’s unorthodox response to his entirely orthodox urges gives me permission to write about desire without shame or fear.

People who know me may be surprised that I, a committed feminist, feel indebted to a known womanizer accused by some of being solely responsible for the negative image of the Jewish mother. No one’s perfect. But who else would dare to resuscitate Anne Frank to haunt a narrator? Could write a story parts of which are told by a detached larger than life breast? And you, Mr. Roth, older even than I, are still writing. Keep at it and thank you.

Jane Isenberg


Filed under Coming of age story, Jewish fiction