The most remarkable thing to me about “Portnoy’s Complaint” is how incredibly raunchy it is. I’m pretty sure it’s the raunchiest book I’ve ever read. It’s a largely plotless, obscene rant, in the form of a young adult Jew’s confessions/justifications to his psychiatrist. Alex Portnoy is particularly sex-obsessed, and much of his monologue is an attack on the women who’ve figured prominently in his life, most of all his mother, of course, and then after that “The Monkey,” as he calls Mary Jane Reed, a woman with whom he has a stormy relationship. I found that the book was frequently hilarious and occasionally shocking. Alex is a virtuoso with language and shrewd observer, but he has few redeeming qualities otherwise, and the corrosiveness of his attitudes toward women, family, and everything, really, is impressive but can be wearying, too. I’m glad I finally read this particular literary touchstone, but I admired it more than loved it.
By Philip Roth