03/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Philip Roth Reader: Softball, Sex, Portnoy And That Whole 60s Thing

You can't take Portnoy's Complaint just anywhere. Or rather, I can't, or I haven't, yet. My copy of the original hardcover is in Los Angeles and I'm in New York, so I ducked into a Barnes & Noble to buy the paperback, and then I took myself out for coffee, intending to read.

Midwestern tourists to the right of me, from a town that somehow survives without gourmet coffee, so they're busily deconstructing the difference between a latte and a cappuccino. An emphatically take-charge middle-aged female exec to the left of me, or perhaps someone who needs everyone within earshot to think that's what she is, because she's busily taking calls and rustling papers.

And then a guy asks if he can take the empty spot at my table, and when I say yes he plunks himself down to make a ridiculously pleasant phone call to his wife.

I take out my new copy of The Looming Tower instead, lest I be accused of being a wanton anti-feminist homewrecker; I figure that's the trifecta of misunderstanding I'm in for with this crowd. Portnoy's Complaint was, after all, a lightning rod for anyone spoiling to take a swipe at white male intellectuals of the Jewish sub-category; the list of people who felt Roth had betrayed them is about as long as Alexander Portnoy's list of creative masturbation scenarios. Its 1969 publication seemed, at the time, a very big deal.

But what if the jaded record producer in the film "The Limey" is right: What if the 60s were not really the 60s? What if the truly memorable moment was 1966 and a little chunk of 1967, and the rest was just initial shock waves followed by some savvy marketing by the nostalgists? What if Portnoy's Complaint, that jewel in the sexual revolution's unbuckled chastity belt, was really nothing more than a paste gem?

Not to say there wasn't plenty of shock value. An enterprising reporter with a skewed sense of humor, at the time, might have monitored supermarket and butcher-shop liver sales to see if the infamous meat scene caused a slump or a spike in purchases. Overprotective mothers might have altered their bus safety rap to make sure their daughters stayed away from cute little boys in corduroy pants. Girls with brothers might have done well to put locks on their underwear drawers.

And I'm barely a third of the way into the book at this point; I haven't even reacquainted myself with the infamous Monkey, played in the film adaptation by Karen Black, who in the early 70s pulled off a sex-object hat trick by playing the inappropriate obsession in "Five Easy Pieces," "Portnoy's Complaint," and "The Great Gatsby."

I'm getting ahead of myself by even referring to her; at the moment I'm reading about Portnoy's other ecstasies, which have to do with Duke Snider and breaking that real and underacknowledged taboo - the kosher shellfish barrier -- with a nice, juicy lobster. Oddly, all of his passions follow the same track: anxiety and guilt, anticipation and excitement, an orgasmic moment -- whether it involves Portnoy alone, Portnoy and a fly ball, Portnoy and shellfish, or Portnoy and a woman -- followed by the most fleeting of appreciations before the sequence starts over again.

Portnoy's Complaint is, after all, a portrait of the artist as a young shark. He is constantly on the move. Even if his body holds still long enough to lie on the analyst's couch, that brain is a perpetual motion machine.

And the sex is funny, silly, outrageous. Like so much of the 60s, its purpose is to shock, to hold the past at arm's length and say see, I am not like you, I am a new, liberated creature who has shed the shackles of the past. But what comes through this time, at least in the first 100 pages, is a painful truth: Once we get done with the fun part of rebellion, we have to figure out who we want to be. The hell with you and everything you stand for is relatively easy, but it's reactive. This is me? A slightly more complicated challenge, one that makes Portnoy's Complaint more than schtick or shock fiction.

I bet I hated Monkey the first time I read about her, or rather, I bet I hated Roth for creating such an objectified gal. Polarized notions about who was or wasn't a friend of the modern, liberated woman survived well into - oh, please, they're still alive today for some of us, too often with cause. But I'm ready to take next couple of hundred pages out in public. If anybody mentions the business with the piece of liver, I'll just change the subject to Portnoy's delicious ode to softball.

Karen Stabiner's comic novel, Getting In, will be published in March. Visit or write to her at

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