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Authors: Philip Roth

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Portnoy's Complaint

BOOK: Portnoy's Complaint
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P
ortnoy's Complaint
(port/'noiz kam-plant') n. [after Alexander Portnoy (1933
    
)] A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature. Spielvogel says: '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.' (Spielvogel, O. The Puzzled Penis,
Internationale
Zeitschrift
fur
Psychoanalyse)
Vol. XXIV p. 909.) It is believed by Spielvogel that many of the symptoms can be traced to the bonds obtaining in the mother-child relationship.

THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE

CHARACTER I'VE MET

S
he was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell had sounded, I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers. And then it was always a relief not to have caught her between incarnations anyway- even if I never stopped trying; I knew that my father and sister were innocent of my mother's real nature, and the burden of betrayal that I imagined would fall to me if I ever came upon her unawares was more than I wanted to bear at the age of five. I think I even feared that I might have to be done away with were I to catch sight of her flying in from school through the bedroom window, or making herself emerge, limb by limb, out of an invisible state and into her apron.

           
Of course, when she asked me to tell her all about my day at kindergarten, I did so scrupulously. I didn't pretend to understand all the implications of her ubiquity, but that it had to do with finding out the kind of little boy I was when I thought she wasn't around-that was indisputable. One consequence of this fantasy, which survived (in this particular form) into the first grade, was that seeing as I had no choice, I became honest.

           
Ah, and brilliant. Of my sallow, overweight older sister, my mother would say (in Hannah's presence, of course: honesty was her policy too), The child is no genius, but then we don't ask the impossible. God bless her, she works hard, she applies herself to her limits, and so whatever she gets is all right. Of me, the heir to her long Egyptian nose and clever babbling mouth, of me my mother would say, with characteristic restraint, This
bonditt?
He doesn't even have to open a book- 'A' in everything. Albert Einstein the Second!

           
And how did my father take all this? He drank- of course, not whiskey like a
goy
, but mineral oil and milk of magnesia; and chewed on Ex-Lax; and ate All-Bran morning and night; and downed mixed dried fruits by the pound bag. He suffered- did he suffer! - from constipation. Her ubiquity and his constipation, my mother flying in through the bedroom window, my father reading the evening paper with a suppository up his ass . . . these, Doctor, are the earliest impressions I have of my parents, of their attributes and secrets. He used to brew dried senna leaves in a saucepan, and that, along with the suppository melting invisibly in his rectum, comprised
his
witchcraft: brewing those vein green leaves, stirring with a spoon the evil-smelling liquid, then carefully pouring it
 
into a
 
strainer,
 
and
 
hence
 
into
 
his
 
blockaded
 
body, through that weary and afflicted expression on his face. And then hunched silently above the empty glass, as though listening for distant thunder, he awaits the miracle . . . As a little boy I sometimes sat in the kitchen and waited with him. But the miracle never came, not at least as we imagined and prayed it would, as a lifting of the sentence, a total deliverance from the plague. I remember that when they announced over the radio the explosion of the first atom bomb, he said aloud, Maybe that would do the job. But all catharses were in vain for that man: his
kishkas
were gripped by the iron hand of outrage and frustration. Among his other misfortunes, I was his wife's favorite.

           
To make life harder, he loved me himself. He too saw in me the family's opportunity to be as good as anybody, our chance to win honor and respect-though when I was small the way he chose to talk of his ambitions for me was mostly in terms of money. Don't be dumb like your father, he would say, joking with the little boy on his lap,
 
don't marry beautiful, don't marry love-marry rich. No, no, he didn't like being looked down upon one bit. Like a dog he worked-only for a future that he wasn't slated to have. Nobody ever really gave him satisfaction, return commensurate with goods delivered- not my mother, not me, not even my loving sister, whose husband he still considers a Communist (though he is a partner today in a profitable soft-drink business, and owns his own home in West Orange). And surely not that billion-dollar Protestant outfit (or institution, as they prefer to think of themselves) by whom he was exploited to the full. 'The Most Benevolent Financial Institution in America I remember my father announcing, when he took me for the first time to see his little square area of desk and chair in the vast offices of Boston Northeastern Life. Yes, before his son he spoke with pride of The Company ; no sense demeaning himself by knocking them in public-after all, they had paid him a wage during the Depression; they gave him stationery with his own name printed beneath a picture of the May flower, their insignia ( and by extension his, ha ha); and every spring, in the fullness of their benevolence, they sent him and my mother for a hotsy-totsy free weekend in Atlantic City, to a fancy
goyische
hotel no less, there (along with all the other insurance agents in the Middle Atlantic states who had exceeded the A.E.S., their annual expectation of sales) to be intimidated by the desk clerk, the waiter, the bellboy, not to mention the puzzled paying guests.

           
Also, he believed passionately in what he was selling, yet another source of anguish and drain upon his energies.

           
He wasn't lust saving his own soul when he donned his coat and hat after dinner and went out again to resume his work-no, it was also to save some poor son of a bitch on the brink of letting his insurance policy lapse, and thus endangering his family's security in the event of a rainy day. Alex, he used to explain to me, a man has got to have an umbrella for a rainy day. You don't leave a wife and a child out in the rain without an umbrella! And though to me, at five and six years of age, what he said made perfect, even moving, sense, that apparently was not always the reception his rainy-day speech received from the callow Poles, and violent Irishmen, and illiterate Negroes who lived in the impoverished districts that had been given him to canvass by The Most Benevolent Financial Institution in America.

           
They laughed at him, down in the slums. They didn't listen. They heard him knock, and throwing their empties against the door, called out, Go away, nobody home. They set their dogs to sink their teeth into his persistent Jewish ass. And still, over the years, he managed to accumulate from The Company enough plaques and scrolls and medals honoring his salesmanship to cover an entire wall of the long windowless hallway where our Passover dishes were stored in cartons and our Oriental rugs lay mummified in their thick wrappings of tar paper over the summer. If he squeezed blood from a stone, wouldn't The Company reward him with a miracle of its own? Might not The President up in The Home Office get wind of his accomplishment and turn him overnight from an agent at five thousand a year to a district manager at fifteen? But where they had him they kept him. Who else would work such barren territory with such incredible results? Moreover, there had not been a Jewish manager in the entire history of Boston Northeastern ( Not Quite Our Class, Dear, as they used to say on the
Mayflower
), and my father, with his eighth-grade education, wasn't exactly suited to be the Jackie Robinson of the insurance business.

           
N. Everett Lindabury, Boston Northeastern's president, had his picture hanging in our hallway. The framed photograph had been awarded to my father after he had sold his first million dollars' worth of insurance, or maybe that's what came after you hit the ten-million mark. Mr. Lindabury, 'The Home Office . . . my father made it sound to me like Roosevelt in the White House in Washington . . . and all the while how he hated their guts, Lindabury's particularly, with his corn-silk hair and his crisp New England speech, the sons in Harvard College and the daughters in finishing school, oh the whole pack of them up there in Massachusetts,
shkotzim
fox-hunting! playing polo! (sol heard him one night, bellowing behind his bedroom door)- and thus keeping him, you see, from being a hero in the eyes of his wife and children. What wrath! What fury! And there was really no one to unleash it on-except himself. Why can't I move my bowels- I'm up to my ass in prunes! Why do I have these headaches! Where are my glasses! Who took my hat!

           
In that ferocious and self-annihilating way in which so many Jewish men of his generation served their families, my father served my mother, my sister Hannah, but particularly me. Where he had been imprisoned, I would fly: that was his dream. Mine was its corollary: in my liberation would be his- from ignorance, from exploitation, from anonymity. To this day our destinies remain scrambled together in my imagination, and there are still too many times when, upon reading in some book a passage that impresses me with its logic or its wisdom, instantly, involuntarily, I think, If only he could read
this
. Yes! Read, and understand- ! Still hoping, you see, still if- onlying, at the age of thirty-three . . . Back in my freshman year of college, when I was even more the son struggling to make the father understand- back when it seemed that it was either his understanding or his life I remember that I tore the subscription blank out of one of those intellectual journals I had myself just begun to discover in the college library, filled in his name and our home address, and sent off an anonymous gift subscription. But when I came sullenly home at Christmastime to visit and condemn, the
Partisan Review
was nowhere to be found.
Colliers, Hygeia, Look
, but where was his
Partisan Review?
Thrown out unopened- I thought in my arrogance and heartbreak-discarded unread, considered
junk
-mail by this schmuck, this moron, this Philistine father of mine!

           
I remember-to go back even further in this history of disenchantment-I remember one Sunday morning pitching a baseball at my father, and then waiting in vain to see it go flying off, high above my head. I am eight, and for my birthday have received my first mitt and hardball, and a regulation bat that I haven't even the strength to swing all the way around. My father has been out since early morning in his hat, coat, bow tie, and black shoes, carrying under his arm the massive black collection book that tells who owes Mr. Lindabury how much. He descends into the colored neighborhood each and every Sunday morning because, as he tells me, that is the best time to catch those unwilling to fork over the ten or fifteen measly cents necessary to meet their weekly premium payments. He lurks about where the husbands sit out in the sunshine, trying to extract a few thin dimes from them before they have drunk themselves senseless on their bottles of Morgan Davis wine; he emerges from alleyways like a shot to catch between home and church the pious cleaning ladies, who are off in other people's houses during the daylight hours of the week, and in hiding from him on weekday nights. Uh--oh, someone cries, Mr. Insurance Man here! and even the children run for cover- the
children
, he says in disgust, so tell me, what hope is there for these niggers' ever improving their lot? How will they ever lift themselves if they ain't even able to grasp the importance of life insurance? Don't they give a single crap for the loved ones they leave behind? Because they's all going to die too, you know- oh, he says angrily, 'they she' is!' Please, what kind of man is it, who can think to leave children out in the rain without even a decent umbrella for protection!

           
We are on the big dirt field back of my school. He sets his collection book on the ground, and steps up to the plate in his coat and his brown fedora. He wears square steel-rimmed spectacles, and his hair (which now I wear) is a wild bush the color and texture of steel wool;
 
and those teeth, which sit all night long in a glass in the bathroom smiling at the toilet bowl, now smile out at me, his beloved, his flesh and his blood, the little boy upon whose head no rain shall ever fall. Okay, Big Shot Ballplayer, he says, and grasps my new regulation bat somewhere near the middle-and to my astonishment, with his left hand where his right hand should be. I am suddenly overcome with such sadness: I want to tell him,
Hey, your hands are wrong
, but am unable to, for fear I might begin to cry-or he might! Come on. Big Shot, throw the ball, he calls, and so I do- and of course discover that on top of all the other things I am just beginning to suspect about my father, he isn't King Kong Charlie Keller either.

           
Some umbrella.

           
It was my mother who could accomplish anything, who herself had to admit that it might even be that she was actually too good. And could a small child with my intelligence, with my powers of observation, doubt that this was so? She could make jello, for instance, with sliced peaches
hanging
in it, peaches just
suspended
there, in defiance of the law of gravity. She could bake a cake that tasted like a banana. Weeping, suffering, she grated he own horseradish rather than buy the
pishachs
they sold in a bottle at the delicatessen. She watched the butcher, as she put it, like a hawk, to be certain that he did not forget to put her chopped meat through the kosher grinder. She would telephone all the other women in the building drying clothes on the back lines- called even the divorced
goy
on the top floor one magnanimous day- to tell them rush, take in the laundry, a drop of rain had fallen on our windowpane. What radar on that woman! And this is
before
radar! The energy on her! The thoroughness! For mistakes she checked my sums; for holes, my socks; for dirt, my nails, my neck, every seam and crease of my body. She even dredges the furthest recesses of my ears by pouring cold peroxide into my head. It tingles and pops like an earful of ginger ale, and brings to the surface, in bits and pieces, the hidden stores of yellow wax, which can apparently endanger a person's hearing. A medical procedure like this (crackpot though it may be) takes time, of course; it takes effort, to be sure-but where health and cleanliness are concerned, germs and bodily secretions, she will not spare herself and sacrifice others. She lights candles for the dead-others invariably forget, she religiously remembers, and without even the aid of a notation on the calendar. Devotion is just in her blood. She seems to be the only one, she says, who when she goes to the cemetery has the common sense, the ordinary common decency, to clear the weeds from the graves of our relatives. The first bright day of spring, and she has mothproofed everything wool in the house, rolled and bound the rugs, and dragged them off to my father's trophy room. She is never ashamed of her house: a stranger could walk in and open any closet, any drawer, and she would have nothing to be ashamed of. You could even eat off her bathroom floor, if that should ever become necessary. When she loses at mah-jongg she takes it like a sport, not-like-the-others-whose-names-she-could-mention-but-she-won't-not-even-Tilly-Hochman-it's-too-petty-to-even- talk-about-let’s-just-forget-she-even-brought -it- up. She sews, she knits, she darns- she irons better even than the
schvartze
, to whom, of all her friends who each possess
 
a piece of this grinning childish black old lady's hide, she alone is good. I'm the only one who's good to her. I'm the only one who gives her a whole can of tuna for lunch, and I’m not talking
dreck
, either, I’m talking Chicken of the Sea, Alex. I'm sorry, I can't be a stingy person. Excuse me, but I can't live like that, even if it is 2 for 49 Esther Wasserberg leaves twenty-five cents in nickels around the house when Dorothy comes, and counts up afterwards to see it's all there. Maybe I'm too good, she whispers to me, meanwhile running scalding water over the dish from which the cleaning lady has
 
just eaten her lunch, alone like a leper, but I couldn't do a thing like that. Once Dorothy chanced to come back into the kitchen while my mother was still standing over the faucet marked H, sending torrents down upon the knife and fork that had passed
 
between the
schvartze's
thick pink lips. Oh, you know how hard it is to get mayonnaise off silverware these days,
 
Dorothy, says my nimble-tongued mother- and thus, she tells me later, by her quick thinking, has managed to spare the colored woman's feelings.

BOOK: Portnoy's Complaint
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