(Page 2 of 2)
And that’s why “Portnoy’s Complaint” was so shocking to the reader — especially the Jewish reader — of 1969. The shock had to be about more than over-the-top masturbation. Avishai’s insight is hinted at in the subtitle he gives his book. “Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness” means that by the late 1960s, American Jews simply had had enough: the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Six Day War, problems with Jewish identity and with continuity that accompanied the community’s success — these and other issues were of the larger, tumultuous social context that informed everything about America at the time. Avishai suggests that Portnoy taught us, “You don’t have to be this respectful” of social norms. The “repellent side” of being Jewish — indeed, of being human in the 1960s — was worth telling about, and in “Portnoy” Roth told the story strongly.
In one of the strongest chapters in “Promiscuous,” Avishai visits upon the reader a valuable history of the critical reception of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” tracking the players of the condemnatory chorus, from Gershom Scholem to political Zionist essayist Marie Syrkin (“[Portnoy] is Julius Streicher’s satanic Jewboy lusting after Aryan maidens”), through Kingsley Amis and culminating in Diana Trilling’s famous article in Harper’s Magazine, which scorched “Portnoy” and its author. (Lest we forget, Trilling was an equal opportunity excoriator: It was she who famously said that she would like to bury Jack Kerouac alive.) More serious was the hugely respected Irving Howe, who had played no small role in promoting “Goodbye, Columbus” a decade earlier. Three years after “Portnoy” appeared, Howe attacked the book not because it was anti-Semitic or indecent, but because “it was worse, a literary failure and a social disappointment.”
Avishai’s catalog of horrors serves an important purpose: It tells us all we need to know about the Jewish community of the late 1960s and early ’70s. But it tells us, as well, why Roth outlasted his critics. “Portnoy’s Complaint” is not simply a book of its moment. Every tension and struggle, every Drang and every Sturm, found in “Portnoy” is “latent in any bourgeois decade.”
“Promiscuous,” at bottom, is an unabashed defense of “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Are Alexander Portnoy and Roth one and the same? Avishai’s response to critics of “Portnoy’s Complaint” is an unambiguous “No.” Is “Portnoy’s Complaint” indeed “the book for which all antisemites have been praying”? Perhaps Roth is a self-hating Jew, as numerous critics had it. Perhaps — but (as Portnoy suggests), “Maybe that’s the best kind.”
Most important, the themes of family ties, sex and love, identity, Zionism and just plain Jewishness, which come to full flower in many of Roth’s later masterpieces, are prefigured in “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
“Promiscuous” teaches us that “Portnoy’s Complaint” just may be worth, 40-something years later, a second look.
Jerome A. Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, is the author of four books on American Jewish public affairs, history and sociology.