Portnoy and Playboy Go to Summer Camp


I read Portnoy’s Complaint, for the first and only time, at a YMCA sleep-away camp in Western Massachusetts. I was 13 years old, a recent inductee into manhood compliments of both my inherited faith and my hair-sprouting loins. My father had given me the novel as a bar-mitzvah gift, along with a copy of the most recent issue of Playboy, which featured on the cover a leather-clad classical violinist, and left me with a strange attraction to band-geeks (pre-American Pie) who, I fantasized, also sported binding, synthetic lingerie beneath their otherwise frumpy clothes. If this was my father’s intended effect—to draw me unconsciously towards musically gifted, bespectacled (read: Jewish) girls—he is craftier than I give him credit. But, looking back, I think the magazine was a warning, either to he or I, I’m not sure, a warning that said, “Beware: bourgeois upbringing can lead to debauched life.” It was a warning unheeded.

At camp we were forced to attend non-denominational chapel every Sunday. The camp director would tell disconcerting Native American fables, and the young, Birkenstock-ed counselors regaled us with dorm-room acoustic guitar balladry (Hootie and the Blowfish’s anthemic ode to male disregard, “Let Her Cry,” was a favorite at the time). The service would end with the recitation of various prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, and a Native American Prayer for Peace (I have a vague notion that a Jewish Prayer was included, but, perhaps tellingly, the specific prayer escapes my memory). For a recent escapee from years of Tuesday/Thursday Hebrew school, and a temporary ex-pat of ultra-Semitic-suburbia, reciting the Lord’s Prayer was exciting, an act of rebellion almost on par with Alexander Portnoy masturbating on a piece of liver and then returning it to the fridge.

I did not like the book at first; neither could I put it down. I was not bothered by the novel’s coarse language, its endless varieties of masturbation, or its almost jubilant descriptions of bathroom behavior; on the contrary, these were subjects of consummate interest. What did bother me was just how much I related to Alexander Portnoy. He seemed to embody every trait within myself that I hated: anxiety, neurosis, guilt, extreme sexual frustration resulting in inappropriate manifestations of onanism. These were my ugly internal secrets, and I did not want them shared with the world. I didn’t even want to admit them to myself.

The novel produced in me a feeling of repellent, yet ultimately satisfying queasiness that I would later find in the films of Woody Allen, and, more recently, in Larry David’s HBO-nebbish-fest Curb Your Enthusiasm. I did not wish to relate to these characters. They seemed like miserable, whiny creatures, anathema to the romanticized ideas I had about great artists—Bukowski, Keruoac, Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson (all writers also passed along by my father)—whose forays into substance abuse, and nonchalance towards sex, represented a tradition of gentile American chauvinism I longed to be a part of: manly prose, featuring hard-earned full-stops and hard-fought fishing expeditions (Hemingway), comma-spliced, ethereal descriptions of highways and Mexicans (Keruoac), guilt-free encounters with unattractive prostitutes (Bukowski), and lavishly worded, ether-inspired hallucinations (Thompson).

Even at the age of 13 I must have realized that, no matter how many tattoos I would get (two), how many times I would shave my head down to neo-Nazi-nothingness (every day for the past three years—otherwise I would look like Larry David), or how many shiksas I would bed (the first was at that very YMCA camp!), I would never belong to the Henry Chinaskis of the world; I would always, in my heart, be an Alexander Portnoy.

Still, the novel captivated me. Never before did a book so boldly seem to represent the thoughts in my head—namely my desire for constant masturbation. I had little experience with females, but I immediately recognized the dilemma between dating the beautiful, blond, but sexually restrained “Pilgrim” and the oral-sex-benevolent but insane “Monkey,” as one that I would face later in life. 

I have not returned to the novel. It was many years before I would read Roth again. Roth, along with Saul Bellow, was my father’s territory. These were the writers he taught, and wrote about, and seemed to possess the way a person possesses his own name. As I fell in love with prose fiction I felt the need to distance myself, to find my own books, books my father hadn’t read; books I could decide on my own were worthy of praise. Because my father’s particular strand of expertise lies in (though is certainly not limited to) Jewish fiction, I gravitated towards gentiles: Denis Johnson, Richard Ford, Amy Hempel, Haruki Murakami. In these books I could form my own opinions; I could achieve first love without the nagging, incestuous sensation that my father had been there before.

I have since gone back to Roth. It is a strange time to be reading his work; his brand of libidinous prose seems to have fallen out of fashion. And though I still feel queasy about my identification with his characters—the sexually degenerate puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, or the Nathan Zuckerman of The Ghost Writer, cocky, young, and brimming with ambition and fantasies about Anne Frank—I have learned to identify, and am trying to accept these traits within myself. My therapist might say, like Portnoy’s own therapist exclaims at the end of the novel: “Now vee may perhaps to begin.