Portnoy’s complaint is both a noun and a verb – the book is another first person narrative describing the author’s childhood and later life, an autobiography with only the flimsiest attempt at disguise as a novel. Alexander Portnoy complains to his psychiatrist – at quite some length – about his domineering mother, his father crippled by chronic constipation, and the impact this has on his later ability to develop serious relationships with women. This is both his lament and his condition.
Of his mother he writes memorably:
“She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell sounded I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out the milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers“
As a young boy his relationship with his mother is simply dysfunctional, but when he hits puberty it becomes positively Oedipal. The chapter on the masturbation frenzy he embarks on at this point is a famously sustained portrayal of adolescence, and is quite filthy in some respects. It is hardly surprising given Portnoy’s frankness about every aspects of his sexual life and fantasies that the book caused a considerable controversy on publication. Even today it has the power to shock.
As with most first person narratives, the reader is automatically sympathetic to the narrator – we see the world through their eyes, hear their explanations for their conduct, get their side of the story. With such monstrously controlling parents it is hardly surprising that Portnoy rebels, pursuing relationships with non-Jewish girls. He is unarguably a misogynist. He gives his girlfriends unpleasant, objectifying nicknames – the Pumpkin, the Pilgrim, the Monkey – and abandons the latter when she is feeling suicidal. He feels guilty about this, but not guilty enough to do anything about it. Of course he blames his mother for his inability to form grown up relationships with perfectly pleasant young women, (he cites one reason why he leaves ‘The Monkey’ as her calligraphy!) but his inability to accept any personal responsibility for this begins to chafe after a while – “a Jewish man with his parents alive is half the time a helpless infant” – and you want to tell him to stop whining and grow up.
The novel takes a darker turn in the final chapters when Portnoy goes to Israel. He has a casual sexual encounter with a female soldier, but is impotent. Later in the final pages he meets up with a hitchhiker, and tries to rape her. It is quite satisfying to see her kick his ass. His misogyny seems unrestrained when the travels to Israel, possibly because of his distance from his mother.
In the end, Portnoy is his own, most astute critic. He pleads:
“Spring me from this role I play of the smothered son in the Jewish joke! Because it’s beginning to pall a little at thirty-three!”