Chromey’s Complaint: On abandoning Portnoy

Tonight when I turn in for bedtime reading I’ll be cracking open Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs instead of Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth.

Why is this noteworthy? Because I am abandoning a Philip Roth novel. Those are words I never thought I’d say/type. In fact, today while I was making a peanut butter & jelly sandwich I thought to myself, “Philip Roth is probably my favorite male author after John Irving.”

Until Portnoy, I hadn’t met a Philip Roth novel I didn’t enjoy. The Human Stain? Good. Sabbath’s Theater? Good. The Plot Against America, Goodbye, Columbus, Everyman, Indignation, The Ghost Writer — all good.

But Portnoy? It’s all OMG STFU. In fact, it’s so much shut the fuck up that I couldn’t even make it to 100 pages. I quit at 80. No, that’s an exaggeration I quit at page 78 with a chapter called “Cunt Crazy” that starts off like this:
“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.”

Shocking! No, that’s sarcasm. I’m surprised he hand’t mentioned it because the previous 77 pages were all poop and masturbation. So much poop and masturbation that I couldn’t take it any more. And before you think I’m a prude, I’m all for poop and masturbation as long as there’s some story to back it up. But if the story is I masturbated all the time and my mom was an over-protective bitch, well that’s no story. That’s life. Fucking boring.

Sure, I get that Portnoy’s Complaint was published in 1969 when all that Freudian bullshit was in vogue and the sexual revolution was about the wreck havoc on the country, and I’m sure when it was first released it was the most hilarious scandalous thing ever. In fact, that’s why I wanted to read it.

A few years back I was watching a BookTV celebration of Philip Roth (is that the nerdiest sentence ever?) where Charles D’Ambrosio, Jonathan Lethem, and Nathan Englander all talked about how much the la-la-loved Portnoy. Of course I should have taken into account that three dudes might really dig on a book with a bitchy, overbearing mother and chronically masturbating son. Especially when those on or two of those dudes talked about reading Portnoy on the sly when they were teens.

This book induced so much eye-rolling in this ALMOST FORTY-year-old woman that I had to stop reading lest I strain an optic nerve or something.

And the worst part? The absolute worst part in a book that is (up to the point I read) all about masturbation (and not even in a sexy way but in a shameful, I have to hide my inescapable sexuality way) and poop was the ridiculous exclamation points. At one point I counted twelve on a single page. I think this book was punctuated by that cousin of mine who never made a Facebook status update that didn’t include at least three bangers after each sentence.

Fuck man, this book was full of suck and I cannot wait to read Breadcrumbs tonight.

(Visited 58 times, 1 visits today)


  1. Barrett Chase 08.Dec.11 at 10:17 am

    I should read it again. I LOVED this book when I was about 22. But you and I should never compare tastes in books because we would quickly stab each other to death.

    What I loved it for was its humor. It’s scatological and juvenile, sure, but it’s the gold standard of scatological, juvenile humor.

    “You got it all over everything, you mocky son of a bitch! Look at the doilies!”

    As far as the exclamation points, remember that this is all one huge rant that he’s screaming at his psychoanalyst, who never even gets a word in the whole time.

    But I’ll never convince you, and that’s fine, so I’m not sure what this comment is all about other than that I wonder how I would feel about it now, and if I would still think it’s as funny as I did when I first read it.

    1. Jodi 08.Dec.11 at 10:24 am

      @Barrett Chase, Okay, I cannot deny that mocky son of a bitch is pretty great. And I get that it’s one huge screaming rant, and the relentlessness of it was just, just, too much for me. I wonder if I would have read it when I was 22 if I’d have loved it too. I think maybe my time to enjoy Portnoy has passed.

      Maybe it’s just one of those books guys love. . . which I know is sexist, but I’m convinced there are certain books dudes really really love that just aren’t as loved by women. (I would argue that Kavalier and Clay is one of those books, but a lot of women are going to jump out of the woodwork now and be all, ‘I love that book!’).

      If you’d like to re-read and you don’t have a copy, you are more than welcome to mine (seriously, let me know and I’ll send it right on up).

  2. Barrett Chase 08.Dec.11 at 10:35 am

    You’re probably right about that.

    I never read Kavalier and Clay. I think I started it and hated it on impact, but I’m not sure whether it was that or some other Michael Chabon book. I just don’t like his style.

    In college, a professor told me to read Look Homeward, Angel, explaining that he loved it at my age but had grown to hate it over time. “But you should read it. You’ll love it. I envy you. I have no patience for that kind of thing any more,” he said. I gave it a try and abandoned it because I thought it was boring. Every now and then I think about trying it again to see if I’m ready for it.

    I think we have a copy of Portnoy, but I probably won’t read it soon as I’m all about short stories right now.

    1. Jodi 08.Dec.11 at 10:40 am

      @Barrett Chase, I had a prof who told me to read Look Homeward Angel, too AND I tried and quit because it was boring. What was it about that book? Maybe it was the thing for profs to suggest to college kids in the early 90s?

      What short stories are you reading now? I’ve been really bad about reading them this year even though I tend to love the crap out of them.

      (P.S. I’m pretty on the fence about Chabon. I disliked K&C but I really liked Wonder Boys. However, I think that had more to do with the writingness of it than anything else.)

  3. Barrett Chase 08.Dec.11 at 11:04 am

    I just read a bunch of Miranda July, which was great, and now I’m onto Lorrie Moore and Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ll probably dig into some back issues of the New Yorker on the Kindle and find the stories. I’m not reading in any particular order or even trying to finish a collection. Just jumping around as the mood suits me.

    1. Jodi 08.Dec.11 at 11:10 am

      @Barrett Chase, Ever since Christa went on her Miranda July love-a-palooze, I’ve wanted to watch that movie and see if it colors the way I feel about that collection she put out a few years back. But right now I’m firmly in the Meh camp.

      I love the shit out of Lorrie Moore and read her How to be a Writer at least once a month.

      When you dive into New Yorker stories, seek out George Saunders. He’s amazing.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.