04/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Philip Roth Reader: Both Of The Great American Pastimes

Who are the great baseball writers? Roger Angell, Bill James, George Will, whose politics we will ignore because being a lifetime Chicago Cubs fan has to count for something. Oh yeah - and Philip Roth in Portnoy's Complaint.

I hear snickering, and I don't blame you for what you're thinking: I just finished the book, and I am frankly exhausted by everything Alex and the Monkey managed to do -- and Alex and the two Israelis didn't manage to do, despite his ludicrous and admittedly pathetic efforts.

I leave for another column a discussion of the cliched male notion that any red-blooded gal will succumb to a man's unwanted advances, as soon as I make clear that I am not cutting Portnoy any slack. I will say only that he is not as solitary a figure as we might think: the film Baby Boom happened to drift by on television recently, and there was that most goyische of leading men, Sam of the craggy weatherbeaten features Shepherd, throwing himself at Diane Keaton, who goes accommodatingly limp at his unsolicited and rather overbearing kiss.

In a way, that's the more insidious, predatory fantasy, in which the gal, not the guy (a la Portnoy) goes limp. For all of his acrobatics with the Monkey, at least he acknowledges that the Promised Land doesn't quite live up to its title.

Yes, Alexander Portnoy is a jerk, of a specific entitled, overbearingly insecure sort; but he cops to it, which as his therapist suggests, is the first step in the healing process.

So enough about the adolescent, priapic rants that make Portnoy's Complaint seem like a book about sex. Let's talk instead about it as a book about baseball. Those of you who have the re-released paperback with the red cover can turn to pages 69, and the rest of you can riffle through to the section called "Jewish Blues," until Portnoy finds out his mom does not have cancer and he can head to the ball field with only the standard load of guilt.

Read about the beautiful uniforms worn by Portnoy and the other boys on the Seabees A.C. team, the splendor of center field, the survivable humiliation of playing in the softball league when the high school team won't take him. Read about striking out more often than not, of the occasional ecstasy of connecting with the ball, and of the perfect ease of a fly ball dropping into a glove.

I have waited all my life for the Cubs to win the World Series, but it is a grim loyalty born more of fatalism -- they have to win someday, don't they? -- than of celebration or even an appreciation of the subtleties of the game. And yet the real, pure pleasure of this book has to do not with comic sex but with baseball, even for those of us who don't quite get it.

If the Monkey stands for Portnoy's convoluted, constipated (same malady as his dad, different means of expression, if you will) attitudes about love and autonomy, baseball stands for a beautiful synergy of those two things: It's love and teamwork. It's what he never gets more than a powerful glimpse of in real life.

Should you doubt it, turn now to "In Exile," either on page 241 or about 30 pages from the end, and read Roth's description of the neighborhood men -- save his father, who too often has to work -- playing seven-inning softball on Sunday mornings. For about eight pages, he delivers what is worthy in Portnoy's young life, the kind of connected grace that as an adult he both yearns for and runs from.

Most of us either don't share his sexual history or won't cop to it publicly, but the baseball game, the hardworking dads, the proud son wanting to be just like them, is so familiar that it makes the heart ache. His cry of liberation to his mom, "I'm going up the field to watch the men," transports me, even though in my case it was likelier to be out front to rake the leaves, or, on a very lucky Chicago summer night, to walk with my dad the four deserted blocks to the liquor store, to buy a six-pack of cold Vernor's ginger ale.

The ability to transport the reader with a single phrase, to blink and see family before attitude takes over again -- that's what lingers about this book. I remember the Italian whore standing proudly with her little boy in his Sunday best, long after I've forgotten what she did when Portnoy and Mary Jane (the Monkey's rarely-uttered real name) hired her for the night.

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