After reading PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, I find myself scrambling to recall whether I have ever read another American novel anywhere near as hysterically funny. Maybe Tom Robbins's SKINNY LEGS AND ALL is in the same ballpark (and I've yet to read CATCH-22) but Roth simply had my head spinning while I read this book. My jaw is still on the floor, in fact.
Esoterically, this book is one long rant about the joys and (more heavily) the anguishes of growing up Jewish in America in the forties and fifties. It's 1966 and successful civil servant Alexander Portnoy is on the psychiatrist's couch trying to get out all his Oedipal, inferiority, and sexual fetish complexes.
That infamous masturbation scene in the movie AMERICAN PIE? A direct descendent of Mrs. Portnoy's piece of liver!
More deeply, if you can stand it, this book seriously examines the struggle of growing up with smothering parents: Alex's both put him on a pedestal and criticize everything he does. He's unmarried at thirty-three in part because of all the neuroses his parents have bestowed in him--so why doesn't he get married and have children already? Alex lets us know in pornographic detail why. Speaking of pornographic detail, Alex spends plenty of time on his ultimately doomed affairs with (mostly Protestant) women. Most of his anger at growing up Jewish in a Christian-dominated society he takes out on these "shikses"--variously called Pumpkin, the Pilgrim and the Monkey--this is not a politically correct book from the feminist perspective. It does, however, raise serious questions about what it means to be a human being, as opposed to just a hyphenated-American.
PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT is brash, profane and wonderful. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted or those with what were once considered "polite sensibilities." But it is a very moral book in it's own way. Portnoy knows he's no hero, and Roth doesn't portray him as such--in some ways the book is one big joke. Every effective joke has its kernel of truth; Roth's have the whole can of corn.
I never expected a novel that is one long rant to inspire a review that is one long rave, but there it is.