Portnoy's Complaint, and mine

What Philip Roth meant to a young man dreaming of being an author

Philip Roth.
(Image credit: Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo)

I still remember the first time I encountered the late Philip Roth. It was between the yellow covers of Portnoy's Complaint. I don't remember where I was, or precisely how old — late in high school or early in college. But I remember who I was, either way. I was the young man overwhelmed and frightened by his own desires, verbally facile and intellectually ambitious but utterly unable to communicate when it came to the subject of desire, even to myself.

And here, suddenly, was a man who just said it. The obsessive onanism. The frantic sexual desire. The crushing maternal expectation. The conviction that the obsession and desire was perversely connected with that crushing maternal concern. Roth didn't invent these tropes, but he voiced all of it with neither apology nor self-justification. It wasn't brief or a testimony; it was a complaint, with all the loathsome self-involvement that implies — but the titular narrator simply added that to his bill of particulars. Roth had made a monument of his own monstrosity, and I couldn't stop reading.

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