Arts & Culture

Alexander Portnoy is Bad for the Jews

Alex Portnoy: fictional poster child for my people, curious little Yid, anti-Holden Caulfield, insufferable little prick; I wonder if you know how much damage you’ve caused? According to this essay, Portnoy’s Complaint is forty years old this year.  And while … Read More

By / March 15, 2010

Alex Portnoy: fictional poster child for my people, curious little Yid, anti-Holden Caulfield, insufferable little prick; I wonder if you know how much damage you’ve caused? According to this essay, Portnoy’s Complaint is forty years old this year.  And while the author of that essay is off on his math (Portnoy’s Complaint came out in 1969, making it 41), it got me thinking that whatever age the book is turning, I don’t want to celebrate it’s introduction; I really wish everybody would just stop talking about it already! Many hail Portnoy’s Complaint as the masterwork of a man who may be the greatest living American novelist.  I won’t argue with Philip Roth’s stature here; I’m an avid fan, and enjoy his books a great deal.  When it comes to his work, I’d say he is best represented by his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, the chilling alternate history of The Plot Against America, or the largely autobiographical works of the Zuckerman series.  Plus, of all the writers from his generation, he has the least amount of crap in his canon (sorry Norman Mailer and John Updike), and even though he’s become a crotchety bastard in his old age, when Roth speaks, it’s always worth it to listen.  So don’t think I’m knocking Roth’s legacy; instead, this is simply a plea for the world to stop using Portnoy’s Complaint as the go-to novel when discussing Jewish literature.  While Jews in Europe have long been portrayed as big-nosed devils hell-bent on poisoning the wells, making matzoh with gentile baby blood, and enslaving everybody on the continent, it would seem that the common caricature of today’s Jew is either associated with the liver-fucking hornball Alexander Portnoy, or the bespectacled anti-mensch (who shares many of the same neurosis as Portnoy), Woody Allen.  They are both feeble, neurotic, and sexually misguided, and for over forty years, American Jews have dealt with these stereotypes, and as much as it pains me to say it, I blame Portnoy’s Complaint.  But is it Roth’s fault?  He’s a writer, not a prophet.   In reality, It’s the fault of lazy critics who either don’t have the knowledge to give a better example, or they doubt the intelligence and scope of the people reading their reviews.  Inevitably, if you read ten reviews of any recent Jewish writer –from Gary Shteyngart to Rachel Shukert– you are going to find a comparison to Portnoy’s Complaint.  I don’t need to give you a history lesson about Jews and literature: go pick up the 1,100 page Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology if you need a good primer.  All I know is that sometime in the last 40 years, some braniac placed Portnoy’s Complaint next to the Torah and the Talmud in the Jewish holy book section.