Read A Classic: Portnoy’s Complaint

13 April 2014 by 10 Comments

Sex Month literary friction

Book: Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Year Published: 1967

First lines: “She was so deeply imbedded 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.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 violated family dinners

One of the abiding problems with Great American Writers is that our worship of them as authors can sometimes take on a life of its own, entirely divorced from their actual work, with problematic and occasionally disastrous results. This is why, for example, William Burroughs’ murder of his wife is mythologized as part of his greatness. This is why the dust jacket for a reprint of Henry Miller’s Opus Pistorum described the book by saying “Here one finds Miller’s characteristic candor, wit, self-mockery, and celebration of the good life. From Marcelle to Tania, to Alexandra, to Anna, and from the Left Bank to Pigalle, Miller sweeps us up in his odyssey in search of the perfect job, the perfect woman, and the perfect experience.” Sound like a classic of American fiction, right?

Except that it fails entirely to mention that Opus Pistorum is pure, gleeful, unadulterated dollar-a-page pornography, encompassing everything from bestiality to Black Masses, with a nice side serving of incest, child prostitution, and variations on the theme of rape.


And it’s precisely this kind of vague, automatic, uninformed enthusiasm about Great Writers, authors we know are supposed to be good, regardless of whether or not we have actually read their books, that led my 9th grade English teacher to agree to let me write a book report on Portnoy’s Complaint.

Alas, Ms. S: she was a matronly lady in her sixties who had most definitely not read the book in question, and somewhere in the depths of her genteel hairdo there must have been some glimmering that Philip Roth was a Great American Novelist and therefore it would be harmless. Or perhaps she had him confused with Henry Roth? Either way, I probably convinced her with some glib argument about it being an important novel on the Jewish coming of age experience.

Which isn’t exactly UNtrue. It’s just, well, there’s a lot of emphasis on the coming part, you know?

In fact, Portnoy’s Complaint is one of the great coming of age stories, the story of the childhood crisis of identity brought on by the pressures of integration, the story of growing up not-quite-white in America, the story of the neuroses gifted to us by our parents, the story of the human struggle for love and acceptance, etc., etc. It’s just also the story of a teenage boy’s obsession with his dong, an obsession that chases him (like all our neuroses and childhood longings and fears, Roth intimates) well into adulthood. It’s a meditation on self-acceptance and a graphic depiction of pubescent erotomania, a brilliant work of literature that allowed even an incorrigible 14-year-old who just wanted to say the F word out loud in class without getting in trouble to understand that this was not just some schlocky, shock-y smut (unlike Opus Pistorum, which I read the same year, and which was an important book to me for other reasons, none of them having to do with literature) but an actual chronicle of the fight to form one’s own identity.

This is probably why my father thought it would be a good book for me to read in my early adolescence – well, that, and the fact that he was really worried that I didn’t honestly understand what was going on in the lascivious, lewd, lustful little brains of my male classmates. Giving me Portnoy was supposed to convince me that teenage boys really only think about one thing. Which, actually, it did. But I don’t think he counted on me choosing the book for a class project; I really don’t think he counted on the fact that my teacher would okay it for a book report.

Not just any report, either: a group book report. An in-class group book report.

As you can imagine, I was one of those kids who hated group work of any kind. I was maddened by the possibility of letting anyone else do anything I was certain I could do better (which, at age fourteen, was usually ALL THE THINGS, especially if schoolwork was involved). So choosing Portnoy was basically a form of revenge: make me work with other people, will you? Fine. I WILL CORRUPT THEM ALL.


In retrospect, my book group was like something out of a movie: there was the sexy, grungy bad boy who skipped class and was actually pretty smart when he wasn’t stoned out of his gourd; the quiet nerdy girl who played an instrument and never talked in class and later went on to become a dominatrix; the nice girl who was scandalized by sex and swearing; and me, the know-it-all with the dorky glasses reading erotica under her desk in algebra class. This was during the time I wanted to be a filmmaker when I grew up, so our book report took the form of a little video acting out various scenes from the book. (Troublemaker/budding pornographer that I was, I probably would have tried to make it dirty if I’d dared, but even just talking about fucking – in a book report! in front of the class! – was still pretty naughty for a ninth grader, so I had to be satisfied with the tamer, dialogue-oriented scenes.)

I chose it because I wanted to rebel against what I saw as the dryness and dullness of my English class; the books I was reading on my own were teaching me that the world was full of vile, vulgar, wonderful, weird things that nobody was pointing out to us were there (even though Shakespeare is full of them, of course, and so are lots of other books we’re forced to read in high school). I wanted to yell WAKE UP! BOOKS AREN’T BORING! and Portnoy was my chance. I still don’t really know how I got away with it. I regret to report that I honestly don’t remember the reaction to our presentation, but I somehow, miraculously, didn’t get in trouble. It may be that I do Ms. S a disservice, for all her old-fashioned manners and uptight ways. It’s possible that she did understand what I, too, couldn’t help but know beneath my desire to shock: that despite, or perhaps because of, moments like the infamous Liver Scene, the book was (is!) a Great American Novel.

On some level, really, I did just want an excuse to say the line “So. Now you know the worst thing I ever did. I fucked my own family’s dinner” in front of the entire class and two scandalized teachers – or I did at first, anyway. But by the time I got to the end, something had changed, because I recognized the importance of the book. It’s still important, for the same reasons that Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn or Nabokov’s Lolita are still important:because it’s easy to decry a work of literature as obscene, inappropriate, corrupting, but there’s a world of difference between writing that’s simply meant to titillate and writing that actually investigates the enormous complexity of human sexuality in all its darkness, madness, and delight, and we still don’t have enough of those books.

My father was right to tell me to read it when he did, and I’m not sorry I inflicted it on my poor innocent peers, either. The glimpse into that frenzy, that anxiety, that misery and desperation and joy of the young Portnoy throwing himself upon cored apples and greased milk bottles was exactly what I needed to make sense of the world around me as an adolescent.


The concept of shame is at the heart of the novel, and I needed that lesson when I was fourteen – badly. It is true that there are some threads of sexism the book can’t quite shake off, most notably in an unpleasant scene towards the very end where Portnoy tries to force himself on a disinterested Israeli soldier. But though Portnoy himself struggles to see women as people, dreams of impossibly perfect partners, bemoans the lack of brains in the shiksa he’s shtupping, and so on, Roth doesn’t give him a free pass: Portnoy’s inability to stop seeing the world through the obsessive single eye at the end of his erection – not his Jewishness, not his parents’ clinging, not his rejection by WASP society – is the reason for his angst. And the nuanced examination of shame, coupled with the fact that Roth refuses to let the women take the blame for Portnoy’s misery, is as refreshing in 2014 as it must have been to those who could see past the flying jizz to the real richness and value of the text when it first appeared in 1969. It was a revelation to me in high school; it hasn’t lost its power even now.


Jericha is an interdisciplinary artist and arts administrator based in San Francisco, where she runs The Museum of Joy, an inside-out museum dedicated to fostering the exploration and celebration of joyous experience.

10 thoughts on “Read A Classic: Portnoy’s Complaint

  1. Oh myyy! I’d have loved to’ve seen that presentation. Most scandalous things I ever read for high-school book reports were the Jean Auel books, and those are, by comparison, quite tame. I do remember mentioning to some of the kids I regularly talked to on the bus that I was reading books with sex scenes, and of course they wanted to see said scenes for themselves. I like to think my coolness level increased just a little bit in their eyes after that.

    P.S. Brilliant Sherlock gif, of course :)

    • I’m sure it DID increase your coolness level. It’s kind of amazing how seeming to know ANYthing about sex when you’re that age confers a particular kind of social status, no matter your gender. And now that I think about it, it seems to me that there’s a big difference between seeming to know about sex (which leads others to look at you with a certain kind of awe and envy) and being seen/shamed as promiscuous. I never got slut-shamed in high school, in part, I think, because I was perceived as someone who knew what she was doing — thanks mostly to my early reading and lack of fear in talking about it. (If anything, my peers found me boringly knowledgeable – like, would you please shut up about it already?) Whereas I feel like girls who get slut-shamed at that age are often the ones who don’t know what they’re doing, who just want boys to like them. Obviously that’s not always the case, but I do think that “knowledge is power” is especially true at that age and in that context.

      • I never thought about it like that… I went to a very small Catholic school (graduating class of 60), and while I do remember some of my classmates talking about sex or who’s supposedly done it already, in retrospect it never seemed like a really big deal.

        I was lucky; none of my classmates ever pressured me to have sex…actually, on a slight tangent, I’m really amazed none of the meaner kids (and there was one really mean guy) ever thought to purposely mispronounced my last name as Slut-kiss. Most people pronounced it Slot-kiss (it’s actually Slotkus, with the “o” like in “orange” and the “u” like in “put”).

        That sounds like a whole new level of unfair, re: teens who do feel pressured to have sex ASAP, that if they do go for it, they’re still going to be shamed if they’re perceived as not doing it right. I mean, as other commenters here have said, sex is such a personal and awkward thing, who actually could know what they’re doing the first time — especially at that age?

  2. I love this post. I didn’t get away with any sexytalk in class projects, but I DID work on a project about John Donne where we blew up a painting of his face, mounted it on foam board, cut out the mouth and rigged up this popsicle stick/rubberband mechanism so that his mouth would move and popped the whole thing in a frame so that he was giving the presentation about himself. It was like god talking to Arthur in Holy Grail.

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