Portnoy's Revenge

Not long after Philip Roth published Portnoy's Complaint, Jacqueline Susann went on the Johnny Carson show. Susann, we remember, had become famous for her pulp novel Valley of the Dolls, which triangulated, in what seemed an all-American way, ambition, sex and barbiturates. Everybody was a "user" in more ways than one.

By 1969, the year Portnoy's Complaint was published, the paperback version of Valley of the Dolls had been as inescapable in the supermarket as the Coca-Cola trademark. So Carson asked Susann if she had ever met Roth. No, she said, but that she would like to. Then she famously added, with the coyness of a Mickey Mouse Club graduate: "Of course, I would not like to shake his hand." (Ed McMahon, we may assume, chortled knowingly.)

I thought of Susann's response to Portnoy, listening to the chatter about Anthony Weiner this past couple of weeks, in part because I've just finished a little book about Portnoy, but mostly because Susann's mockery seemed so iconic--and, sadly, still does. She did not do Roth any real damage, no more than, say, Ann Coulter's recent mockery of Cong. Weiner much mattered. (“After all, it wasn't as if André Malraux said it to François Mauriac,” Roth would later tell his friends.)

Rather, it was the way Susann epitomized America's endless ambivalence towards sexual desire--on the one hand, the assumption that desire was everywhere, the nuclear energy fueling ambition, and, on the other hand, condescension toward people in whom desire is discovered or, worse, who just let things rip. Portnoy feels this ambivalence himself, of course, which is what turns his complaint into a syndrome.

"Anthony Weiner," in this sense, has become a useful fiction for Americans, not the least for Anthony Weiner. Our hero wants, and WANTS, and wants!. He fantasizes, risks, hides and lies. This cannot end well, and not simply because with Facebook "friends" you don't need enemies. This is America: desire is bound to bring one to the ultimate sin, the loss of self-possession, the ultimate bourgeois possession.

Our hero also wants the happiness that comes with responsibility, you see, wants discipline, the training of the senses. He is a good Jewish boy, finally, good enough to make himself almost preemptively ludicrous, homing in on any word of sexual encouragement or admiration, but never "doing anything." Now he is going to his Spielvogel to learn how to become a "better husband and healthier person." He will, one may suppose, eventually join a panel on addiction with Tiger Woods and John Edwards on the Oprah channel. Then he will be forgiven.

You'd think that, forty years after Portnoy's Complaint, we'd all be wiser about such things. You'd think we would at least apply to public life some of the subtlety we expect from fiction. Or, if you missed it, just listen to Rick Hertzberg's wonderful comments about the scandal in this New Yorker podcast. Politicians are not people who think they can get away with everything, Rick says. They are people who, doing what everybody does, should be, well, politic enough to know they get away with nothing. When a politician lies publicly about secret lusts, it is not out of fear of public retribution, but mainly to deceive the spouse. Unadulterated (so long as it is not adulterous) sexuality is no crime in America. It can be mandatory. Who would give a thought to the hot air between Coulter's hardcovers if she looked like Betty Friedan?

As for the spouse, who if not the Portnoy generation would know something that endows all these scandals--to mention only those on the left, Clinton, Edwards, DSK, Weiner--with what might be called a pattern. "It was routine and understood," Rick said about the Victorians, "that these powerful men had an appropriate wife; and then, for release, went to the brothel. What's striking about all these [recent] cases is that, yes, it is the wife that is the proper, accomplished, admirable person, his equal. And then he wants something a little more yielding."

Pathetic? Of course. What if not a man's desire for something more or less perfectly self-possessed and infinitely yielding is pathetic? Which is why we have novels and satires--or had them before they were eclipsed by cable news and other reality shows. "I once cored an apple," Portnoy told Spielvogel, "and ran off to the woods to fall upon the orifice of the fruit, pretending that the cool and mealy hole was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me Big Boy when she pleaded for what no girl in all recorded history ever got…” Like.