228 of 242 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2000
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.
78 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2001
Portnoy's Complaint is one of the most wildly inventive books I have ever read. The book, long considered a classic if for nothing more than its amazingly effective stream-of consciousness technique, is a Roth tour-de-force of macabre emotions, painful truth, and biting sarcasm. The story as such concerns a middle-aged Jewish man, Alex Portnoy ranting to his analyst about the struggles of growing up Jewish in a world populated by goyim. The book is framed as one big monologue in which Alex tells us about everything from his mother's fanatical devotion to the rules of eating kosher to his relationships with women. What's so striking about the book is the sheer strength of will on which it floats. The book plows ahead with its ugly, hilarious, painful, unbearable, engaging, sick narrator with nary a break in between. In attempting to find a cure for why Alex is so sex-obsessed, he at first seems to believe his mother's doting on him is the primary cause. Gradually, however, the reader (as well as Alex) becomes aware that Alex also suffers from a more subtle but affecting problem. The man is a classic text-book narcissist. He masturbates nearly every waking moment as a teenager not as a way of finding sexual gratification from the nature of his relationship with his mother, but because he is so self-absorbed that the act itself is a form of lust (for the self). This haunting narcissism is ultimately what causes him to never be able to commit to a woman seriously, and why he scars The Monkey so terribly (and memorably in a Rome hotel room), demeans the Italian hooker, and nearly rapes a woman in the Holy Land. He feels that by gaining control over these women, he will somehow become more potent himself. Thus, he gets his sexual gratification by inflicting pain on women. Mistakenly, this book is labelled as misogynistic because of alex's terrible crimes. But there's a clear distinction between the narrator's persona and what Roth is really trying to impart to the reader. The characters in the book are all sharply drawn. The memorable moments abound (try not to stand with mouth wide open as Alex describes defiling the family's dinner) or try refraining from expressing disgust at the inhumane way he treats the Monkey. This book is full of emotional honesty and pain. It is about not just Alex's obsession, but about the struggle that everyone experiences to escape the narrowness of our own lives. In that way, despite his reprehensible behavior, Alex represents a kind of hero. An unlikely one, perhaps, but a hero nonetheless. It is this aspect of the book that is most satisfying. Mr. Roth also vividly recreates Alex's childhood in Newark and Jersey City including priceless characterizations of Sophie and Jack, his parents. However, the book skimps on the other characters, especially Alex's sister, Hannah. Also, there are many minor characters mentioned that pop in and out of the book with no real explanation. Aunt Clara, for example, appears early in the book, and then is mentioned in a single sentence more than a hundred pages later. These inconsistencies lower the star rating slightly. The other, more important flaw in the book is the nature of alex's "Complaint". As I mentioned earlier, the reader gradually realizes the real symptom of the illness, but the book seems to keep believing that it is Mrs. Portnoy who causes Alex to be so sexually inept and voracious. It's almost as if Roth wants to convery the more subtle problem and keeps the bits with mom in them for shock value and laughs. This aspect is somewhat disappointing. Roth seems to want to have it both ways. Also, the fact that narcissism is the real disease becomes quite clear, and still Roth never delves into the triger for this behavior. For a book that is so specifically about Portnoy's sexual idiosyncracies and inability to be satisfied, there is never a clear link as to why Portnoy channels his insecurity in this manner. This is Roth's (almost) fatal error. He vividly describes the symptoms, but not the cause. Ultimately, the novel is redeemed on the strength of its characters and emotional pain. Although readers may never know precisely why Alex is the way he is, the hilarious, shocking, and at times unbearably sad portrayal of his life is what remains indelible about this book. It's also, I think, why it's reputation is still so high. Overall, i recommend the book with those reservations. Perhaps a bit overrated by the Modern Library, but a landmark book nonetheless. Grade: B+
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2003
Definitely one of the best books I've ever read... a wonderful concoction of  intellect, humour and brilliant writing. A Jewish man sits on a psychiatrist's chair and rants...he raves and screams and howls and grumbles..... his name is Alexander Portnoy - a genius with a 158 IQ, but also a notorious sex fiend and a man obsessed with his religious background. So vividly and so viscerally does he express his mental anguish that the reader feels an adrenalin rush as they skim through the pages of the book .... I found myself whizzing through the novel and I wasn't bored for a second....anything but! I was amused, delighted, fascinated and yes, I wanted to quote just about every single sentence that came out of Portnoy's mouth....about his relationship with "The Monkey" (no, not a pet babboon, but actually the name he bestows upon one of his girlfriends...a woman on whom he exercises his more selfish and sadistic streak), about their relationship, he retorts "she puts the id back in Yid and I put the oy back in Goy"....a sentence that will hold a whole new load of meaning for those who read the book....its emphasis on the Jewish-Gentile conflict, as seen from Portnoy's obsessive-compulsive point of view, is profound. Here, I'm tempted to stress the fact that the book may appear to be nothing more than a tirade on Semitism, but actually, it is much more universal than that....it is an indictment of ALL forms of religious bigotry, as Portnoy has renounced his religion and labelled himself an atheist. It's merely a co-incidence that Portnoy happens to be Jewish. Had he hailed from a family of devout Buddhists or Christians, his wrath towards those religions would have been just as strong. There's definitely a deep-rooted atheist philosophy underlying the book....and there's also a liberal and thrilling portrayal of sex and sexual deviance.....enjoy!! From onanism to fetishism to scenes of kinky defecation (somehow reminiscent of "Tropic of Cancer"), the book is a romp...at times endearing and at times plain shocking...but always entertaining. And through all his sexual misdemeanours, one thing is a constant....Portnoy's pangs of guilt....he feels remorse and agony and experiences bouts of thinking and re-thinking over everything he does....and thats his "complaint." Don't hesitate, read this book, its AMAZING.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2001
33-year-old Alexander Portnoy is the voice of an archetype previously underrepresented in literature -- the Jewish son. The novel, his "complaint," is written in the form of an address to his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel. Portnoy is trying desperately to understand how his relationship with his parents has influenced his dysfunctional relationships with women.
Portnoy's parents have always been worried about him in ways that seem ridiculous to him. His mother tells him never to eat lobster because it might make him sick like it once did to her. When he feigns diarrhea so he can lock himself in the bathroom to masturbate, his mother chides him for purposely sabotaging his digestion by eating french fries after school. (A large portion of this book is devoted to hilarious tales of his uncontrollable onanistic urges and discharges -- into the toilet bowl, onto the light bulbs, onto the medicine chest mirror, on the bus, into the liver his mother is going to cook for dinner, once even accidentally into his own eye.) When he goes to college, they make him promise them he won't ride in a convertible. When he plans to go on a month-long vacation to Europe, his aged father lays a guilt trip on him about what he would do if he came home to find his father dead.
It isn't good enough for Portnoy's parents that their son has become a prominent lawyer and civil libertarian; they want him to get married and have children. Rebelling against his parents, he starts a string of sexually adventurous but loveless affairs with shikses (non-Jewish girls) whom he gives unflattering pet names. In college, there was "The Pumpkin," a bright, wholesome, conscientious girl; then there was "The Pilgrim," a WASPy debutante; and most recently, there was "The Monkey," a beautiful ex-model but a practically illiterate hayseed. Visiting Israel after abandoning The Monkey on vacation in Greece, his sexual problems come full circle when he meets a Jewish girl who reminds him of his mother.
This book is not for everybody. It is often very funny, but some may feel its tone is too paranoid, bitter, cynical, and confused. The narration frequently degenerates into empty invective (a lot of personal self-loathing, Jewish self-loathing, mocking of Catholic and WASP stereotypes), but at least it doesn't euphemize or sugarcoat its delivery. For better or worse, "Portnoy's Complaint" is as honest and accurate a piece of Twentieth Century American Jewish folklore as there is.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2002
Roth has developed into a writer capable, in Hemingway's parlance, of scoring a TKO on the Master himself. The late-Roth triple-header of Human Stain, American Pastoral, I Married A Communist or(even better than Communist, Sabbath's Theater) has assured him a place in history untainted by the sensationalism that accompanied Portnoy's Complaint, the book that got the public to take notice, the rabbis to denounce, and the media to enshrine Roth in fame/notoriety. Portnoy's Complaint, however, is a book with perfect pitch. The humor and volcanic energy of an Elkin is combined with sheer readibility, accessibility, and the stench of a psyche spraying the page with candor. This is a great book. Unlabored, unforgettable, and true.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 1999
Ok kiddies! For those of you who didn't like this book (and said so in your reviews), allow me to shed some light on the situation. For those of you who didn't like the protagonist of the story (Alexander Portnoy), the reason is: Phillip Roth didn't want you to. Portnoy is not supposed to be a brave gentleman or hero. He is an anti-hero; an invention of Dostoevsky's. Alexander Portnoy is a modernized version of the self-loathing "underground man" archetype that Dostoevsky invented in "Notes from the Underground" and reappeared throughout the rest of his works. He is SUPPOSED to be self-loathing. You are SUPPOSED to be angered by him at times.
Secondly, for those of you who did not like the "stream of consciousness" writing technique that Roth employed, perhaps you should ask yourself what writing style would have worked better. A straightforward narrative certainly wouldn't have captured all the emotion and frustration of the protagonist that this style does. Also, with the book being in the form of a 250 page "kvetch", it rarely gets boring because the prose follows the thoughts of the protagonist and humorous antecdotes "jump" out of nowhere throughout the text.
Lastly, please do not read this book if you are easily offended by sexual references. For those of you who found the book more disgusting than humorous, what can you expect from a book in which chapter 2 is entitled "Whacking Off"?
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2006
I hate Alex Portnoy, the protragonist of the novel, yet I couldn't stop reading this book. To me, that's a sign of a talented writer. The main character has few, if any, redeeming characteristics. He's an egomaniac. He's inconsiderate. He's obsessed with sex. He's a nasty human being in almost every way, yet (as long you're not easily offended) you can't stop reading about him.
"Portnoy's Complaint" is written as if it's the words of a patient confessing to his shrink. Portnoy wants to know what's wrong with himself, but before he can find out he shares his life story from childhood to his mid-thirties, and the vast majority of his story revolves around his relationship with his parents, being Jewish, and his obsession with sex.
I think what makes Portnoy fascinating is that there is probably a little bit of him in every man, though few of us may be comfortable admitting it. So it's interesting to read about him from a male perspective. From a female perspective I'd imagine he would be an interesting character if only because he shows just how depraved a man can be. I guarantee that after reading the book you'll be able to identify at least one Portnoy in your life--someone who has wasted their talents on selfish pursuits, yet they are so egotistical that they blame their shortcomings on everyone else, including their parents.
This book is ridiculously funny because no matter how absurd it gets, you can't help but realize that it's all too close to the truth.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2001
I saw on the "60 minutes" television show that some Jews are upset that Roth has revealed so many Jewish secrets to the Gentile world in his many books. Having just read "Portnoy's Complaint" I understand that sentiment.
Roth teaches us Gentiles a lot of what it means to be Jewish. He teaches us some Jiddish. He points out the priority that the Jews place on marrying only other Jews. He laments the Jews preoccupation with their 2,000 year old "wandering Jew" status. And he marvels at the completely Jewish state of the state of Israel.
Before I read this novel I knew a little about Jewish culture. I had heard the word "goyim" (meaning gentiles) before, but "shiske" I did not know. Evidently it means a female gentile or perhaps a blonde female gentile. Shiskes are important to this novel. Portnoy spends all his energy is pursuit of shiske females must to the consternation of his Jewish parents. In so doing Portnoy attempts to cast of the mantle of his Judaism. Portnoy complains to his Dad that he is tired of "being a suffering jew". Roth is saying that the Jews cling to their suffering status in order to maintain cohesion in their ranks. And woe to the Jew who tries to marry outside his tribe lest he dilute the race. In the case of Alexander Portnoy's, his family members try to derail his relations with Gentile girls.
Philip Roth might have been one of the first "great" writers I have read to address headlong the theme of men and their compulsion to have sex--either by themselves, as the young Alexander Portnoys compulsion to masturbate, or sex with a female. This topic is the main focus of the book. We've always know that it is true that men think about sex pretty much all day long. But Roth is the first writer I have seen write about this at length.
The humour in this novel--yes it is laugh-at-loud funny--left me unprepared for the extreme sadness of Roth's latest novel "The Human Stain".
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2000
I had heard that Roth's prose often reminds readers of JD Salinger, and that Portnoy is merely a Jewish version of Catcher in the Rye. Well...yes and no. In Portnoy, Roth explores the similar themes of adolescenct alienation, self-doubt and loathing, and social displacement which Salinger also regards. Yet Roth does so much more in this ranting and irrefutably hysterical portrait of the American Jew as a young man. Lewd, crude, and achingly funny, this book demonstrates what Jewishness, and the Jewish experience, is like for so many boomer generation males in this country. Portnoy's struggles with his demanding family ("Why can't you stop being so selfish and give us some grandchildren" - remarks his mother), his self-loathing resulting from being unable to derive satisfaction from anything other than emotionless sex, and his overpowering anger at being helpless to change any aspect of his life as it barrels forward, are what makes this novel a must read.
90 of 119 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2004
When I finally decided to read Portnoy's Complaint, I was excited by the reviews I'd read. I thought I'd love it. For a while, I did love it - I was on the verge of recommending it to friends. Then, about a hundred pages in, it got tedious. I realized that this is a one-note novel. Alexander Portnoy keeps saying different versions of the same thing over and over again. His rant (this book is simply one long rant) ceases to be insightful or illuminating or even funny - he just becomes ANNOYING. Hundreds of pages of kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. Not for nothing, ALL parents mess their children up. To have this guy in his thirties still blaming his poor parents for everything that is wrong in his life - and with such gravity - simply makes him a loser.
That is the book's critical flaw - Alex Portnoy is not a likeable character. I hated spending time with him - he's obnoxious. He goes on and on about how noble he is, how liberal, how enlightened, how smart, how educated, how moral, yadda, yadda, yadda. This does not stop him from spouting countless racial, anti-religious, and homophobic stereotypes.
I can't understand why this book is as well-respected as it is. Maybe it was original at the time it was published; now it just comes across as DATED. And I consider myself its target audience too! Similar material has been mined with better results in film by Woody Allen - and even on television by George Costanza!
I know this review is not going to be popular - this book is a bit of a sacred cow. I just couldn't finish it.