Alexander Portnoy, Assistant Human Opportunity Commissioner for New York City, is a psychological mess, and it’s all his parent’s fault.
At least that’s what he tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, in Philip Roth’s aptly named Portnoy’s Complaint.
Alex suffers from stereotypes.
He’s the brilliant and personable only son of a New Jersey Jewish couple. Alex’s eighth-grade educated father slaves for a Protestant insurance company, selling life insurance in the black slums. His mother cooks, cleans, kvetches.
Alex grew up being alternately praised to the hilt and told he was a disgrace to his family.
At 33 he’s still unmarried. His professional life is devoted to doing good for others.
His nonprofessional life is devoted to activities discussed primarily in four-letter words.
Alex’s monologue mixes exaggeration with self-deprecation. His occasional flashes of insight are masked with jokes.
He tells his shrink, “I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public.”
Roth’s novel is genuinely funny, but as he lets Alex makes readers laugh, he makes them see how emotionally frail Alex is.
Roth’s technical skill and his humanity — plus the final punch line — combine to produce a hopeful portrait of a damaged man.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Random House, 1969. 274 p. 1969 bestseller #1 My grade: A
© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni