This 1969 novel had me all confused. I didn’t know whether I should be amused or be offended or be disgusted or even be empathetic. All these emotions vying with one another. Oy vey! Which reminds me, I haven’t had to look up words as often as I did reading this. Yiddish words. Some of which I could guess at given my understanding of German; others just plain crass words. And I don’t even like crass English words!
A friend – female, Nigerian, and Catholic – suggested I read this book. I had called her one day and she happened to be reading it on a train. She was enjoying the humour yet was too shy to tell me what it was about given the presence of other passengers. I should have known.
In short, this novel is a coarse confession to a therapist by a sexually frustrated, paranoid, guilt-ridden, self-deprecating 30-ish year old Jewish bachelor Alexander Portnoy or rather Port-noire, Portnoy, oy oy. Just to set the stage, he is born in the 1930s in New Jersey. Okay! Ready? It is masturbation from page one to page two-hundred-seventy-four. I have seriously been enlightened over the millions of ways a man could wank off and what he could do this act with. Let’s just say I’m not going to look at another fresh slab of liver the same ever again. My vocabulary has been broadened to include a myriad of synonyms for beating the meat. I have even learnt such profound proverbs as “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”. I didn’t need a translator for that one!
Did I mention Mr. Portnoy’s paranoia? In one section of the book he is fourteen and scared that he may have caught the syph from a hand-job from an 18 year old girl. His imagination as to how that scene would play out ie. the revelation to his parents, is pure comedy. You must read it for yourself.
If I had to use one word to tie all the various emotions I went through reading this book (and trust me it wasn’t easy getting to the end) I would use “alarmed”. However, I admit it is comedic. Even stranger, I could understand some of Mr. Portnoy’s frustrations in life. I said some. In one account of his childhood, he states that “the goyim pretended to be something special, while we were actually their moral superiors. And what made us superior was precisely the hatred and the disrespect they lavished so willingly upon us!” By we of course he means Jews, however that phrase could easily have been uttered by any other person made to feel like a second (or third) class citizen in this world.
In a lot of other accounts of his childhood there is so much resentment. Resentment that I understood, though I, like the character, had a perfectly good childhood and had no desires to exchange it for another while I lived it. May I remind you of things that adults did that irritated me as a child? Greivances galore! Next, lots of feigned defiance; feigned because the character is actually a goody-two shoes, the perfect little son, an outstanding citizen. And I quote, it
“takes patience, takes concentration, takes a dedicated and self-sacrificing parent and a hard-working attentive little child to create in only a few years’ time a really constrained and tight-ass human being….Why else…but to remind us…that life is boundaries and restrictions if it’s anything, hundreds of thousands of little rules…rules which either you obey without question, regardless of how idiotic they may appear…, or you transgress, most likely in the name of outraged common sense – which you transgress because even a child doesn’t like to go around feeling like an absolute moron and schmuck….”
Hey, I guess if I can post this long of a review on the book I must have enjoyed it despite its unrelenting assault on my very delicate sensibilities. But, I’m going to end it there with this apparent American classic, no movie watching for me. Nein, danke!