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The Iconic Profanity—and Essential Anthropology—of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’

The 1969 novel established Philip Roth as our foremost chronicler of Jewish identity, sexual anxiety, and the slice of liver where the two intersect

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“She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

The indelible first sentence of Portnoy’s Complaint—per the epigraph, “A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”—both crystallized and helped create the myth of the Jewish mother. Well before the publication of his fourth novel, in 1969, Philip Roth had already earned a reputation for delving into the American Jewish experience, internal and external. He’d even felt the need to defend his themes in an essay called “Writing About Jews” a full six years prior. “They are ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of,” Roth said of his critics, “and defensive where there is no cause for defense.” Shame may have been Portnoy’s driving emotion, but it takes a certain lack of it to open a chapter with: “Did I mention that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?” (That chapter, you may recall, was titled “Cunt Crazy.”)

With Portnoy’s, Roth hit on a frenetic, anxious, hilarious style to match his frenetic, anxious, hilarious substance. An uninhibited screed to match a free-wheeling moment in American history, Portnoy’s is the fictional, one-sided transcript of a visit to the therapist’s office by one Alexander Portnoy, a Newark native son who traces his numerous psychosexual woes back to his parents, especially his smothering, invasive, guilt-tripping mom. A veritable Mad Libs of Jewish touchstones that Roth’s many imitators would turn into clichés, the book sold more than 400,000 copies in its first year, one of them to Don Draper.

Portnoy’s cemented Roth in the stratum of Great American Authors, a position he occupied through more than four decades and dozens of novels before his retirement in 2012 and passing on Tuesday. Roth was both prolific and versatile, ranging freely from political satire (Our Gang) to alternate history (The Plot Against America) to sweeping social statement (American Pastoral). He was also quintessentially, fundamentally Jewish, a cultural identity that became his literary one. Throughout his career, Roth helped to articulate what being a Jew in America means; in Portnoy’s, he did it by shining a floodlight on the most elemental places where identity is formed: appetites, impulses, and how the family unit teaches us to either suppress or satisfy them. It was unspeakable, it was embarrassing—no less a luminary than Gershom Scholem called Portnoy’s “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying”—and it was profoundly true.

I came to Roth in college, after growing up Jewish in a laughably un-Jewish corner of Southern California, far from the Los Angeles bar mitzvah circuit. Consequently, I was familiar with the religious tenets of Judaism, but not the cultural ones. Reading Portnoy’s for the first time thus felt like someone tapping into parts of my lizard brain I hadn’t even known existed, pointing out an ancestral source code that had been shaping my personality without my knowledge. I’m at least a couple of generations removed from Roth and am also, crucially, a woman; I’ve had neither the desire nor the physical ability to ejaculate into a piece of liver. I am, however, an overeducated neurotic from an extended family chock-full of them. My maternal grandfather even has a biography eerily similar to Portnoy’s, a treasured only son raised in the shadow of New York City by grade-school-educated parents to seek assimilation over everything else. Fortunately, I can’t speak to any psychological parallels.

Alexander Portnoy himself is a Freudian fever dream, self-aware enough to draw a direct line between his current hang-ups as a 33-year-old shiksa chaser and the tangle of crossed wires first scrambled in the Jewish enclave of Weequahic. Practically every fixation there is makes an appearance in its first two dozen pages: oral (Portnoy’s mother obsessively monitors his food intake, and the first detail he provides about her is that “She could make Jello, for instance, with sliced peaches hanging in it … in defiance of the law of gravity”), anal (Portnoy’s father suffers from constipation, while teenage Alex’s go-to excuse for frequent masturbation is a bout of diarrhea), phallic (basically every other sentence in the book). There isn’t an orifice Portnoy can’t invest with tragicomic weight; ear-waxing even figures into yet another one of his childhood memories. His mother truly is everywhere.

The broader strokes of an ethnography-from-the-inside do figure into Portnoy’s Complaint: a postwar obsession with upward mobility, the sprinklings of Yiddish that still season local dialect a couple of generations removed from the Old World, middle-class suburban enclaves mere miles from New York City that might as well be on the other side of the planet. But Portnoy’s drives home that most of culture is forged on a much more intimate scale, the micro of feeding and caring and guilt-tripping and domineering becoming the macro of an entire generation finding itself stranded between the conflicting desires to please its parents and escape them.

American Jews are no longer quite the othered ethnic group they were in Roth and his tortured alter ego’s formative years. But though the backdrop of Portnoy’s monologue has changed, its contents still echo throughout the tri-state area. My first and strongest impression of Portnoy’s remains “Oh, that’s where that comes from”—“that” being snippets of conversations at family reunions, diluted traces of we-did-this-all-for-you and here-have-another-helping passed down through the generations. All of Portnoy’s, in fact, is positioned as a conversation within the Jewish community, though it would go on to be read widely outside of it; the psychiatrist Portnoy is unburdening himself to in a 250-page stream of nonlinear consciousness remains mute the entire time, but we learn through one of Portnoy’s asides that he, too, is a member of the tribe.

Which isn’t to say that Portnoy’s couldn’t resonate outside of Jewish American circles, which it obviously did, or that it included everyone within it. The writer Emily Gould has called Roth one of the “mid-century misogynists,” and Portnoy’s is as much about the young male libido as it is about the ethno-religious context that warps it. In Portnoy’s, goyishe women are epitomized by a girlfriend known only as the Monkey, and Jewish ones by the harridan whose omnipresent affection haunts Portnoy’s every waking moment. (To be fair, there’s also Alex’s drab sister Hannah, plus the faceless nice Jewish girls he spurns in favor of a revolving door of aspirational gentiles.) The 2014 Alex Ross Perry film Listen Up Philip features a past-his-prime author named Ike Zimmerman clearly modeled after Roth; Zimmerman’s most famous work, styled to mimic the design of Portnoy’s iconic paperback, is called simply Madness & Women. Reading Roth was how I learned to recognize certain parts of myself. It’s also how I learned to subordinate others in the name of a more seamless process of identification. Both would prove equally useful throughout my reading life.

It speaks to Roth’s unrivaled talent that even a masterpiece like Portnoy’s, whose delirious profanity provided a vessel no genteel work of anthropology could ever hope to match, didn’t come to define his legacy. (There would be countless accolades, including a Pulitzer for American Pastoral, still to come, though never the Nobel many felt Roth was owed.) Portnoy’s Complaint nonetheless helped articulate a particular square of our national patchwork, branding it as American as any Norman Rockwell idyll. As vehemently as prominent Jews rejected Portnoy’s at first in the name of respectability, in the long term, he did us all a favor. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, even for defiled lunch meat.