The Putz

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. Image source: Goodreads

1 AUGUST 2018 | KAREN KAO

I always thought the word putz referred to a bumbling, ineffectual sort of person. More stupid than venal. In my defense, this is the primary definition given by the Oxford, Merriam-Webster and Urban dictionaries. But now that I’ve read Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, my goy eyes have been opened.

A putz is a penis. To putz is to waste time. These are the Yiddish loanwords as we use them today. But Wiktionary offers a secondary etymology that’s too good not to share. For the Pennsylvania Dutch, a putz in an ornament and to putz is to clean. How very, very apt.

a national pastime

Alexander Portnoy is the protagonist of Portnoy’s Complaint. The novel is one long pre-therapy rant by Portnoy to his esteemed psychotherapist. Dr. Spielvogel tells us upfront what to expect from this guy.

Acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus are plentiful; as a consequence of the patient’s “morality,” however, neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration.

In short, the guy likes to pull his putz. He masturbates at home, in the movie theater and on a bus. Into a sock, his own baseball mitt and a piece of raw liver his mother subsequently serves the family for dinner.

When Portnoy comes of (sexual) age, he alternates between beating his meat and lapping cunts. On the rare occasions when he’s not occupied with either, Portnoy thinks about sex, dreams of sex, longs for sex.

Every once in a while, he goes to a baseball game.

a private obsession

Portnoy is not just obsessed with his own putz. He must also compare and measure his putz with those around him. Inevitably, he will find himself wanting.

Here is his father in the Turkish bath, a weekly ritual of Portnoy’s youth.

His scrotum is like the long wrinkled face of some old man with an egg tucked into each of his sagging jowls – while mine might hang from the wrist of some little girl’s dolly like a teeny pink purse. And as for his shlong, to me, with that fingertip of a prick that my mother likes to refer to in public (once, okay, but that once will last a lifetime) as my “little thing,” his shlong brings to mind the fire hoses coiled along the corridors at school. Shlong: the word somehow catches exactly the brutishness, the meatishness, that I admire so

And then there are Portnoy’s views on his mother. Her ability to suspend peaches in jello. The cleanliness of her house, second only to her vigilance over her children. The utter absence of any logic to her thinking. The venom is hilarious.

Only in America, Rabbi Golden, do these peasants, our mothers, get their hair dyed platinum at the age of sixty, and walk up and down Collins Avenue in Florida in pedalpushers and mink stoles – and with opinions on every subject under the sun. It isn’t their fault they were given a gift like speech – look, if cows could talk, they would say things just as idiotic. Yes, yes, maybe that’s the solution then: think of them as cows, who have been given the twin miracles of speech and mah-jongg.

the american canon

Philip Roth is, by any standard, a literary rock star. When he died earlier this year at the age of 85, Roth had more than two dozen novels to his name in addition to countless short stories, essays and works of drama. In its obituary, the New York Times called Roth

the last of the great white males: the triumvirate of writers — Saul Bellow and John Updike were the others — who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century. 

Roth won virtually every literary award there is:

two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize.

There’s a Philip Roth Society (not affiliated with Roth or his publisher) where you can find a list of all works by Roth. The society also curates a bibliography examining all things Roth as well as co-produces the peer-reviewed journal, Philip Roth Studies.

hell and damnation

In 2000, David Remnick wrote profile of Roth called Into the Clear. Remnick started at the beginning, when Roth was associated so often with Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud that – as the joke goes – people thought they ran a Jewish haberdashery.

In Malamud he saw “harsh fables” about urban immigrants; but they were fables about Roth’s Yiddish-speaking elders, not his contemporaries, and they were written in the minor key of immigration rather than in the broad C major of full-fledged American immersion. In Bellow, particularly in “The Adventures of Augie March,” Roth sensed something more congenial, more liberating, a narrator with an aggressive native voice, far more American than immigrant Jew.

Defender of the Faith was Roth’s first story to be published by The New Yorker. It tells of a Jewish army recruit trying to wrangle special benefits out of his Jewish sergeant. The story catapulted Roth into national attention.

Then came a call from the Anti-Defamation League, and then word that rabbis around the city and beyond were decrying the story in their sermons. His sin was simple: he’d had the audacity to write about a Jewish kid as being flawed, as being aggressive and conniving, as being interested in money—and he had done it in a national magazine. He had violated the tribal code on Jewish self-exposure: Not in front of the goyim!

The experience shell-shocked Roth and he vowed never to write about Jews again. He kept his vow for two more novels before letting loose with Portnoy’s Complaint. This time, Roth was accused of being a pornographer, misogynist, narcissist as well as anti-Semite. The book sold 400,000 copies and Roth became a celebrity.

the female gaze

Every writer plumbs the depths and shallows of his life in search of material. After all, the funniest jokes are the ones that cut closest to the bone. The temptation to conflate Roth with his creation, Alexander Portnoy, was good for plenty of gags. Even Jacqueline Susann – she of The Valley of the Dolls and Playboy pinup looks – felt free to make fun of Roth. On the Tonight Show, she told Johnny Carson she’d like to meet Roth

But I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.

Not everyone loved Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth’s friend Saul Bellow was amused, but it wasn’t pure joy. Irving Howe, who had previously published Roth’s work in Commentary, was scathing in his review.

An assemblage of gags strung onto the outcry of an analytic patient, the book thrives best on casual responses; it demands little more from the reader than a nightclub performer demands: a rapid exchange of laugh for punch-line, a breath or two of rest, some variations on the first response, and a quick exit.

I have to say: I agree. Not only did Portnoy’s Complaint read like one long stand-up routine, I felt I’d heard these jokes before. The overprotective mother, the henpecked husband, the child of immigrant parents forever caught in the tug-of-war between the old country and the new.

Maybe it’s because I’m a woman and can only take so many putz jokes. Or maybe this is one of those rare occasions when I’m not quite old enough to appreciate the sonic boom that Portnoy’s Complaint released in 1969.

As Slate puts it, Portnoy’s Complaint

remade the culture in its own smutty image. Today the bawdy set pieces—crude masturbation jokes involving raw liver—seem as American as American Pie