Monday, July 07, 2008


- from Jules Older

Happy birthday, Alexander Portnoy!

It’s hard to believe, but Portnoy’s Complaint is now 40 years old. That makes its protagonist a ripe old 77. How old’s that make you, mamelah? Here's something else hard to believe. The book that changed the way an entire generation thought of liver is virtually unknown to today’s 30-somethings. (That’s Alex’s age in the book.)
I first read Portnoy when it came out, when Philip Roth was a young and rising star. That was, uh, 40 years ago. I next read it just last month. Checked it out of my local library for airplane reading. Lite, whimsical, Mem’ry Lane, airplane reading. Nononono.

On the plane, by the bottom of page 2, I was ready to stand and salute. It is brilliant. Bold. Ballsy. Astonishing. Around page 70, Roth does a three-page riff on what it’s like to be a center fielder. How you walk. How you call for the ball. How you casually pound your mitt. How you make the tough look easy. Halfway through it, I realized that this was exactly what he was doing with writing. Making the impossible look easy and somehow sustaining it for 274 pages. As a writer, I worship at his temple.
Portnoy is, to me, one of the big four: hugely important novels with a huge sexy component. The other three? What’s your pick?
OK, here's mine. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita and Fear of Flying. Great stuff.
Changed culture. Advanced literature. I wanna re-read them all. If you're tempted, I suggest you, too, start with Portnoy. Roth holds nothing back, goes for the jugular, makes the strings behind what purports to be a stream-of-consciousness rant to a shrink as invisible as a moonless night.

If you were civilians, not writers, I'd add that it’s not for the easily offended. He’s hard on Jews. Christians don’t come off too well either. Blacks and whites don’t exactly shine. There's a lot of sex. And there is that liver…
Enjoy, mamelah. God knows, I did. I worship at his temple.

Jules Older, an occasional contributor to beattiesbookblog, is an author and journalist who lives these days in San Francisco, but was once Dunedin NZ-based and is presently back in NZ writing stories about us for various magazines. He has just returned to Auckland after attending the Queenstown Festival.


Anonymous said...

Enjoying your blog - I love Lady Chatterley's and Lolita, couldn't get there with Portnoy's ( perhaps it is a male thing, one could say that about Lawrence, but then again he said somewhere that men have 'wombs' can't remember where I read this) Fear of Flying was a great fun read ( I loved or the lit references) but not sure about the sexual politics for women of now, but was a big break through perhaps for my mothers generation...I enjoyed reading this post

Anonymous said...

Glad yer liking it, Gondal Girl.
Portnoy’s pretty male, all right, plus pretty American and Jewish as well. maybe give it another go. It wowed me more the second time around.