Portnoy s Complaint

by Phillip Roth

Hardcover, 1969

Status

Available

Publication

Random House (1969), Edition: Limited/Numbered

Description

The groundbreaking novel that propelled its author to literary stardom: told in a continuous monologue from patient to psychoanalyst, Philip Roth's masterpiece draws us into the turbulent mind of one lust-ridden young Jewish bachelor named Alexander Portnoy.  Portnoy's Complaint n. [after Alexander Portnoy (1933- )] A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature. Spielvogel says: 'Acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus are plentiful; as a consequence of the patient's "morality," however, neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration.' (Spielvogel, O. "The Puzzled Penis," Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, Vol. XXIV, p. 909.) It is believed by Spielvogel that many of the symptoms can be traced to the bonds obtaining in the mother-child relationship.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member bexaplex
No wonder Portnoy's Complaint is on everybody's top whatever list; it's the Great American Novel of the latter 20th century. Freudian sexual dysfunction, identity politics, and cultural alienation are all described with a self-conscious irony. The relentless grounding of Portnoy's problems in the
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physical made me laugh hysterically the first time I read it; the second time I wasn't sure which parts were meant to be funny. But reading the 1994 edition clears it all up: Roth helpfully includes an afterword in which he claims he got all the ideas for his books from a lost piece of paper in a roast-beef-serving cafeteria in 1956. Ha, ha. What's funnier - a literary masterpiece about masturbation or people who think a novel about masturbation is a literary masterpiece?

Why only 3 stars? By the second reading, the shades of meaning were beginning to intrude on the funniness; I get the feeling that if I read it again I'll only learn more about Freud and won't laugh at all.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
I first read this one back in high school and, in a lot of ways, it's as good as I remember it being. The book can be, by turns, funny, insightful, excruciating and observant, but what's most impressive about it is how incredibly unforced it seems: Roth's facility for rendering dialogue -- or
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rather, monologue -- is nothing less than amazing. Reading this one, you might as well be in the room with Alexander Portnoy, listening to him rant, remember, complain and interrogate himself. The novel verges on being some sort of historical document: in fifty years, you might be able to hand this to someone and say, "this is how American Jews spoke in the twentieth century." The text, which, of course, leans heavily on the passive voice, overflows with jokes, swears, regionalisms, and yiddishisms. You might also be able to say "this book perfectly expresses the condtradictions faced by the Jewish diaspora in the United States and exposes the cultural contradictions inherent in sixties-era liberalism." Any one of these would be an accomplishment, but Roth seems to pull them off all at once while barely breaking a sweat. It's half comedy routine and half exorcism, and it's a joy to read.

But there are also a few things here that keep this from being a five-star review. The first is that Alexander Portnoy seemed a whole lot less likable the second time round that he did the first, though this might have been because when a teenager myself I focused on his accounts of his teenage troubles. These sections still go down easier: Portnoy's more endearing when he plays his parents' victim than when he's acting like a fault-finding, thoughtless, chauvinist, a role that he occupies for much of the book's second half. The fact that he knows that's he's being unbearable, most of the time, doesn't make this stuff easier to read. Also, the book suffers from what might be termed the Woody Allen problem: both Roth and Portnoy love, and love describing, beautiful women, which is fine. But if Alexander's such a hopelessly neurotic cad, how come he keeps ending up with such terrific babes? At times, the book drifts towards fantasy, which might be, I suppose, also fine. "Portnoy's Complaint" isn't a documentary, it's a study of a hopelessly divided psyche in which we get to see an unstoppable id fight it out with a socially conditioned superego. Of course, I imagine some readers will only be able to take so much of this: the book, good as it is, can be an exhausting to read. Alexander's subconscious, from the book's very first sentence, is stuck on blast. Even so, whether you end up loving, hating, or identifying with Alexander Portnoy, this one should be on everyone's "must read" list.
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LibraryThing member Sean191
This is the second or third book I've read from Roth. The first, When She Was Good, I hated, but appreciated. I hated it because the "she" of the title was a despicable character in my opinion. Yet, Roth's talent was evident, so I could only be annoyed that he created such a high level of disgust
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in me about a fictional character.

Portnoy's complaint started the same way for me. The title character, Alexander Portnoy is telling the tale through his recount to his psychiatrist. So he starts, naturally, at the beginning - his childhood. The story at the early stages were grinding. I couldn't stand his parents, although Roth's writing did elicit a few laughs at that point. Then I thought, maybe that's what he wanted. What most writers would want - for the reader to empathize with their characters... .Anyway, the story continues through Portnoy's life documenting plenty of mistakes and moral failures along the way. With his parents in the picture less (although always there lurking in the background) I enjoyed the story more.

This book often hits top 100 lists. he writing is topnotch. I believe possibly when it was released it was trailblazing as far as content and was probably a hot topic at cocktail parties for its racy descriptions and language. However, with decades passing and far more "in your face" books written since (some also managing topnotch writing) the impact is blunted. If I hadn't been exposed to those other books, or the words that were likely to have caused a buzz when they were in print back in the '60s . I imagine the best way to look at this is like one might look at some bands from the past that while comparatively, might not be as well-rounded as a successor, were still the originators of something original and worthwhile and worthy of emulation.

Oh and I nearly forgot - the ending struck me as very Vonnegut - unless Roth did it first, in which case, Vonnegut's endings strike me as very Rothian...
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LibraryThing member ReadingHabit
I can sum this book up in one word - hilarious!! It had me laughing out loud within the first few pages and I was still laughing as the book came to a close. Did it leave me feeling a little dirty? Yes!! Whilst reading Portnoy's various, and certainly creative, ways of spanking the monkey, I did
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question what might have attributed to the dog-eared, heavily creased, moisture marked copy of the book that I was forced to read (pictured left). What was the book all about? Well, I'm still not too sure, but I don't care because it was such an enjoyable ride.

Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is the ramblings of Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst Dr Speilvogel. Portnoy is afflicted with a condition that results in uncontrollable and often perverse sexual impulses. Over the course of the book Portnoy details his compulsion to masturbate as a teenager and various lewd sexual encounters as an adult in an attempt to discover what has caused his affliction. We learn that he feels trapped between his need to delve deeper into degradation in search of sexual enjoyment and his overiding sense of shame at his actions. Portnoy begs of Spielvogel: Is my condition the result of the orthodoxy of growing up in Jewish America? Can I attribute it to my obsessive relationship with my overbearing and repressive mother? Does my bowel-challenged father have something to do with it? Or, am I just a symptom of society - the American male of the times?

Written in the late 1960s, the books' heavy sexual content made it something of a scandal and in some parts of the world it was actually banned. With chapters titled 'Whacking Off', Roth makes no attempt to hide the main theme of his book. Though times have changed, I'd venture to say that some readers would still find the contents confronting and a little too sexually explicit. You've been warned!!

So, what is Portnoy's monologue all in aid of? As I said before, I'm still a little uncertain. Roth is obviously passing comment on society at the time, but Portnoy's Complaint is not so much a social commentary as it is one man's exploration of his own condition - an attempt at self-diagnosis, if you like. One criticism I have of the book is its' length. I think Roth could have achieved the same result in under 200 pages as he has in 300, but it's a minor flaw. The books strength for me is Roth's wit. I don't find many books laugh-out-loud funny, but this one had me roaring.
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LibraryThing member jeffome
A rather unusual book........one that went along more easily than i would have thought had i known what i was diving into ahead of time. It is basically the ranting self-deprecating stream of consciousness rambling of a very Jewish young man to his therapist, feebly attempting to make sense of his
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chaotic, guilt-ridden life. Having, myself, grown up in a very middle-class, very WASP-y central PA neighborhood, my personal connection to anything Jewish was virtually non-existent....that was until i was fortunate enough to get accepted to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I was then confronted with an entirely different culture of Ivy League Jewish students that had obviously had a very different upbringing than I did, most from the Metropolitan New York/Long Island area. Habits, clothing, priorities, religious practices, accents, attitudes, food, and so much more that was completely new to me, so different in some respects that i definitely felt the odd man out. It was merely my complete ignorance; the dictionary definition type. I just did not know. And, of course, over time, it all eventually melded into that wonderful period of time known as my college years, some exciting times. I bring this all up because this very personal (actually, a little too personal, possibly!) account of growing up Jewish in a North New Jersey suburb opened my eyes to the basis of all those differences i experienced with my new college counterparts; actually made me say to myself....Ahhhhh, now i get it! And that new insight probably made me like this book more than i might otherwise have. Its mix of very funny humor, graphic explicit sexuality, pontification on religion and social justice, and a sharply accurate representation of growing up an adolescent male in a family setting is both fun, interesting and slightly off-putting. Roth's character (or are they caricature?) studies of his parents are certainly the best and funniest parts of the book. Again, odd, but worth it.
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LibraryThing member mikemillertime
Sloppy, angry, mean, stupid and not funny, this book's biggest crime is thiking itself far smarter than it actually is. The wannabe pop psychology - Freud & Oedipus and Psych 101 - that frames the rambling narrative makes it even more insulting to an educated reader, if the constant racist,
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mysoginist, elitist, religious insults don't get you first. Perhaps the whole thing can be read as some sort of meta-critique on the folly of the cruel and perverted narrator, but this book was essentially the literary equivalent to having a flasher jump you on the street, then explaining it's okay because he has a PhD. Maybe the book was provactively visionary and avante garde in its heyday, but it does not hold up well after the shock value dissipates under our modern times. I would've put it down earlier if I wasn't so fascinated by this all-time worst trainwreck to see where it went, which was true to its flimsy premise and traveled nowhere. This book is a worthless, extended diatribe of a self-loathing egotist, and could only appeal to readers with the dumbest AND blackest senses of humor.
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LibraryThing member phollando
Philip Roth's fourth book, Portnoy's Complaint was the one that made his reputation for the newly crowned Booker International Prize winner and long touted for the Nobel Prize for literature. The book is a flowing and humorous monologue by Alexander Portnoy to his virtually silent psychoanalyst. It
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is a venerable tour de force of New Jersey Jewish neurosis and guilt.

Portnoy's complaint is an odyssey of sexual addiction. His early onanistic habit kept him locked in the toilet so much that he had to invent diarrhoea as an excuse, for which his high-strung mother assumes is caused by his eating fries instead of coming home to a hearty meal and which his eternally constipated father, jealous of Alex's free-flowing bowels, hammers at the door demanding to see evidence in the bowl (a very funny scene which is parodied in the Simpsons where a young Krusty the Clown is caught practising clowning in the toilet by his overbear Rabbi father).

As Portnoy matures, well at least ages, we see a succession of girlfriends and ever more bizarre sexual antics. A full-bodied but flat chested woman he calls the pumpkin, an emotionally stilted but sexually adventurous woman he calls the monkey and finally a Jewish woman he meets in Israel who resembles his mother but whom finds him somewhat repugnant.

It could be very easy to dismiss this book as just literary pornography but Roth uses sex to examine deeper themes, history, culture, identity, family. Themes he continues to develop in his later works such as American Pastoral and the Plot Against America, all told from Jewish characters living in or around New Jersey. I'd say for this reason that his is almost an American Mordecai Richler just a damn site dirtier.

I said that the psychoanalyst was almost silent, he has one line, the last one: 'So [said the doctor]. Now vee may to perhaps begin. Yes?'. Funny but don't let anyone read it over your shoulder!
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LibraryThing member OscarWilde87
"Portnoy's Complaint n. [after Alexander Portnoy (1933- )] A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature."

Sounds intriguing? Published in 1969, Portnoy's Complaint is probably the breakthrough
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novel that made its author, Philip Roth, famous. It describes Jewish protagonist Portnoy growing up to sexual maturity and his sexual endeavors through adolescence and adulthood. All this is given in monologue by the protagonist. Both book cover and epigraph suggest that Portnoy relates his exploits lying on a psychologist's couch and receiving therapy. In the end, however, there is a punch line, which Roth actually captioned as such. I will of course not give it away here.

This book is filled with stories about sexual encounters and also includes somewhat graphic descriptions of the goings-on in Portnoy's sex life. While this might be a bit shocking to find in a book it is actually not very unusual for a postmodern novel published in the late 1960s. Roth's wit and the humorous way in which sex is depicted in Portnoy's Complaint add to a special and worthwhile reading experience. At several points in the reading process I found myself thinking 'No, he did not just write that.' This is one of the few books that made me laugh out loud while reading.

Now, who should read this book? People interested in a description of the hardships of growing up as a Jewish boy in 20th-century America. People who like wit and humor in a novel. People who liked other books by Philip Roth. People who want to read a story that is different from (almost) everything they have read before. People interested in the topics of sexual frustration and sexual desire. People interested in the oddities of growing up as a Jewish boy who discovers he has a penis.

On the whole, Portnoy's Complaint is certainly a very enjoyable read with an ending that makes you laugh even more. You certainly will not be bored. 4 stars.
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LibraryThing member yooperprof
New Jersey Jewish boy grows up with sexual hang-ups in the 1940s and 50s and eventually becomes a real schmuck.

Interesting historically - this was an enormous best-seller in the sexually liberating 1960s - but not as literature. Little plot, and less character development. Essentially a comic
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sketch that overstays its welcome.
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LibraryThing member Reed21
Most people will, by now, have seen the neurotic, self-loathing/loving, Jew with mommy issues schtick somewhere before, so "Portnoy's Complaint" may not pack as potent a punch as it originally did in 1969. Regardless, Roth's book feels like the best, most authentic version of said schtick that I've
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read or watched anywhere. I'm not a big Woody Allen guy, but Roth is kind of like a darker, better Woody Allen.

In case you don't already know what the book is about and haven't read the description, it's basically the narrator rambling to his psychiatrist (the psychiatrist has one line in the entire book) about his sexual desires, repressions, motivations, etc., many of which are influenced by his Jewish upbringing and the presence of his overbearing mother.

I thought most of the book was very, very funny. I laughed sympathetically at the characters that the narrator was complaining about, while often laughing simultaneously AT the narrator for getting so worked up about things.

I've seen/heard people complain about gratuitous depictions of sex and masturbation. One of the book's main themes is the narrator's simultaneous sexual obsession, guilt, and self-repression, so yeah, there are some sex scenes and some masturbation scenes. A couple of the sex scenes do get a little adventurous, but it's probably nothing you've never heard of before. In fact, if you've A) masturbated and B) had sex (these should both be prerequisites to reading "Portnoy's Complaint"), you're probably not too prudish for anything in here. It's a bit of a shame that the book has a reputation for sexual outrageousness, because it contains some of the most genuine descriptions of sexual desires and motivations.

The only weak point of the book for me was the ending, which seemed a bit rushed and not all that strongly connected to the rest of the book. However, given that the book is basically comic ramblings about a horny kid growing up and trying to deal with his stereotypically shrewish Jewish mother, the plot was never a focus and the end was always going to feel a little abrupt. All in all, it's well worth reading for the humor, the depiction of growing up Jewish in 20th century Newark, and the honest exploration of sexual motivations.
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LibraryThing member MsStephie
This has been on my bookshelf for 30 years. I think I would have found it funnier if I'd read it then, Alex just came across as a whinger.
LibraryThing member Katie_H
This is my second book by Roth, and I still don't understand the hype that surrounds him, but I haven't given up yet! The plot of this novel is hard to explain, so I'll do my best. The narrative is 30-something Alex Portnoy's long obnoxious rant to his psychiatrist, where he comes to terms with his
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miserable life. There are two main themes present: the first centers around growing up Jewish in 1950s America, and the second is about a his sexual maturation process, and all of the escapades that went along with it (both solo and in relationships). The book is vulgar, over the top, and downright pornographic at times, but it is jam-packed with humor that keeps the story moving along. One of the earlier chapters is entitled "Whacking Off," which gives an idea of the overall tone of the novel, and there were especially funny sections that I felt compelled to read aloud to my husband. One of the most memorable and hilarious scenes involves the use of liver for masturbation, a piece of liver that later finds its way to the family dinner table (remember the pie scene in American Pie?). All in all, while very funny, I think I completely missed the point on this one. The story felt dated, and I really disliked the character of Alex, so I found it hard to empathize with him.
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LibraryThing member Stahl-Ricco
"So. Now you know the worst thing I have ever done. I fucked my own family's dinner."

This is just one of many hilarious, and brashly descriptive images from this book! Holy mackerel is it raw and uncompromising! It reads like a therapy session, 30 something Alexander Portnoy talking to Dr.
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Spielvogel. Alex has a constipated father, and overbearing mother, and an obsession with his penis, masturbation, and shikses/the goyim! (did I mention he's Jewish?) He has a wonderful sex partner in The Monkey, and quite an introduction to sex with Bubbles Girardi (his poor eye!). Basically, if you want to laugh, read this book! Oy vey!
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LibraryThing member realbigcat
I read this entire book in the bathroom over the course of a few weeks. This seems appropriate considering all the bathroom antics between Alex's masturbation and his Father's constipation. This book is really funny and a little disturbing. I'm sure a bit or more of this is autobiographical. The
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struggle of a Jewish man and his overbearing Mother. There is so much in this book that many people can relate to so that keeps the readers interest. An older book but not at all dated.
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LibraryThing member amerynth
I really hated Philip Roth's novel "Portnoy's Complaint." I really didn't care for this whiny narrator, his obsession with sex and his mommy issues. I can't find anything redeeming to say about it at all -- so I'm moving on after having read a little more than half.
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
I don’t propose to spend too long writing about this sordid and utterly unamusing novel – I have already wasted more than enough time reading it. The edition that I read was even more heavily strewn with critics’ encomia than usual, all of them suggesting that this is a comic masterpiece, and
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it seems to have played a significant part in launching Philip Roth as one of those authors striving to bring off ‘The Great American Novel’.

I wonder whether this is another case of the Emperor’s new clothes, with no one daring to rock the boat by suggesting that, rather than funny and acutely observed, it is simply a clumsy attempt to shock, which left no crass stereotype knowingly overlooked.
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LibraryThing member Matt_Sessions
PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT is about a man named Portnoy complaining. The titular character is a textbook Neurotic Jew, with every cliche within that descriptor thrown into the mix. His parents fulfill similar arch expectations, equally as cookie-cutter as their son. The narrative is driven by Portnoy's
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mammoth Oedipus complex and rambling musings. This novel is far too long, with numerous already-dead horses being savagely beaten over the course of the plot. The voice itself has little redeeming qualities to it; Portnoy himself is bland and unsympathetic, and his story is rarely interesting. The book has occasional bursts of humor and very rare bits of insight. Beyond that, it is an unfocused and unengaging novel about the most interesting topics of all: family and sex.
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LibraryThing member martensgirl
I picked up this book completely ignorant of its content, When I realised it was a first-person Jewish introspection I was concerned it would be a tedious ramble, reminiscent of Jacobson's The Finkler Question. I was pleasantly surprised; I found this book hilarious. I thought the ending was weak,
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but enjoyed how Portnoy spent his time complaining about traits in his mother that he himself possessed.
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LibraryThing member Stahl-Ricco
"So. Now you know the worst thing I have ever done. I fucked my own family's dinner."

This is just one of many hilarious, and brashly descriptive images from this book! Holy mackerel is it raw and uncompromising! It reads like a therapy session, 30 something Alexander Portnoy talking to Dr.
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Spielvogel. Alex has a constipated father, and overbearing mother, and an obsession with his penis, masturbation, and shikses/the goyim! (did I mention he's Jewish?) He has a wonderful sex partner in The Monkey, and quite an introduction to sex with Bubbles Girardi (his poor eye!). Basically, if you want to laugh, read this book! Oy vey!
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LibraryThing member steadfastreader
Thank FSM I finished this book. Maybe I'm not smart enough. Maybe I don't do well with this particular style of literature but dear lord! It's the rambling of a madman... more or less. Consumed and obsessed by his own sexuality blaming first his mother and then his 'girlfriend' for the 'mania' that
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possesses him. I'll admit. The last few lines were pretty funny.
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LibraryThing member beelzebubba
I can only imagine that when this book was published in 1969, it probably caused quite a stir, due to the language and subject matter. And there are certain images I will always remember: the bread knife, his father's constant constipation, “The Monkey,” getting it in the eye, etc... He painted
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such a vivid picture, I leave the book almost feeling as if I had been the one experiencing much of it. And having grown up in a Catholic family, I always thought my parents were the experts at engendering repression and meting out guilt. They were rank amateurs compared with Portnoy's parents.
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LibraryThing member ChicGeekGirl21
Ridiculously naughty and neurotic. Alex Portnoy is the horny, guilt-ridden Jewish man of every shiksa's dreams and nightmares.
LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
Roth is one of my favorite authors, so I was delighted to find a 1969-vintage copy of "Portnoy's Complaint" at a community book sale. I heard a lot about this book during my college years, but never read it until recently.
It was my least favorite Roth book. While it is laugh-out-loud funny in
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spots, it's downright tedious in too many areas.
Still, one must give Roth credit for his graphic and edgy treatment of sexuality through the eyes of a tormented teen.
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LibraryThing member the_awesome_opossum
So, Philip Roth has been doing awkward teenage humor and dysfunctional families for a lot longer than, say, Napoleon Dynamite. The feelings of fumbling sexuality and the ubiquitous fear of not fitting in ooze sebaceously off every page, so most of the time the reader is torn between laughing at
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Alex Portnoy's recollections and cringing. The entire thing is narrated to a psychologist, so Alex has the same sort of wry understanding of his younger self as the reader does. It's a well-written, if sometimes terribly awkward, account of being a teenager
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LibraryThing member Alirambles
Like 289 pages of an episode of Seinfeld. Portnoy's parents are George's parents. Portnoy is a combination between George and Kramer. Alas, there is no Jerry, so it wasn't as funny as Seinfeld.

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