This year, books by two different popes made waves within the Catholic Church, but outside the Vatican walls, Italian readers have been devouring and debating a ribald debut novel that tracks a dysfunctional Jewish family through the wealthy neighborhoods of Rome.

“What sense is there remaining Jewish in a Catholic world?” asks Daniel Sonnino, the angst-ridden narrator and flawed hero of Alessandro Piperno’s Con le peggiori intenzioni (With the Worst Intentions). In one way or another, that question is posed repeatedly in a coarse comic monologue so reminiscent of Portnoy’s Complaint that the newspaper Il Riformista called the author a “young Italian Roth.”

The resemblance to Philip Roth does not go very far. Though provocative and engaging, the novel lacks a cohesive plot and Roth’s genius for cultural commentary. Piperno’s account of three generations of Sonninos, a bourgeois clan burdened by sexual perversions, insecurities, and self-loathing, ultimately collapses under all their accumulated baggage. But more intriguing than the Sonnino saga is the way this novel and its author have captured the Italian imagination.

With the Worst Intentions has become a bona fide phenomenon, selling 120,000 copies in its first two months on the shelves—a staggering figure in Italy. A March cover story in the weekly magazine of Corriere della Sera, the country’s leading newspaper, said the novel “will be discussed by and enchant Italians for months and probably years to come.” When the book was introduced at a literary festival in May, the presenter quipped, “We are here to discuss two books. One is With the Worst Intentions, the other is the press clippings it has produced.”

In the process, Piperno, a 32-year-old literature professor with a musketeer goatee and a penchant for pipes and canes, has become a media darling. One popular conservative intellectual talk show devoted an entire episode to praising him, while the liberal Il Riformista coined the term “pipernismo” to describe his flashy prose and personal style. Corriere della Sera plotted the favorite haunts of both the author and his fictional alter ego on a map of Rome’s exclusive neighborhoods. Piperno’s classes at Tor Vergata University and the journal he edits, Nuovi Argomenti, have enjoyed swells in popularity.

In With the Worst Intentions, Daniel Sonnino confesses how a whiff of his aunt’s feet brought on his first ever orgasm. But if Roth is an obvious influence, so is Marcel Proust. In fact, in 2000 Piperno published The Anti-Semitic Proust, an academic analysis of how the author of The Remembrance of Things Past—who, like Piperno (and his narrator, Daniel) was the product of a marriage between a Christian and a Jew—depicted his Jewish characters. Piperno emulates the French novelist in everything from his flamboyant dress to his purple prose style. Daniel describes rooms that characters walk through long before his birth. (Occasionally, Piperno pokes fun at his narrator’s curious omnipresence, but other times he seems to be hoping the reader won’t notice.) Piperno also seems to have incorporated in his own novel some of the self-loathing he detected in Proust’s portrayal of Jews.

The Sonnino patriarch, Bepy, is a Holocaust survivor and an incorrigible philanderer who refuses life-saving cancer surgery because it might render him impotent. His Catholic business partner, Nanni Cittadini, suspects that his own wife has become Bepy’s latest conquest. With the seed of malice planted, their joint venture falls apart. Nanni gets his hands on a Caravaggio that bankrolls a new business, while Bepy goes bankrupt; Daniel’s father, Luca, looks up to Nanni as a father figure after Bepy’s disgrace. Later, Daniel becomes infatuated with Gaia Cittadini, Nanni’s beautiful Catholic granddaughter—but his attempts to woo her fail miserably. Ultimately, Nanni finds Daniel drunk and disgruntled at his Gaia’s birthday party, sifting through her underwear drawer.

Why has an unsavory story of a wealthy, dysfunctional Jewish family and the painfully awkward adolescent sexual frustrations of its narrator created so much fuss? For starters, there aren’t many Jews in Italy anymore. Jews lived in Rome since the heyday of the Empire, but a roundup of the Old Ghetto in October 1943 dashed the illusion, held by many Italian Jews, that they were seen as equal citizens. Clearly, some of the novel’s success stems from the relative unfamiliarity of everyday Jewish customs in what is such a solidly, or at least nominally, Catholic country. Piperno peppers footnotes through the 304 pages to explain kosher, mitzvah, and other Jewish terms.

A clear-eyed glimpse into Rome’s Jewish culture might have made for a more compelling read, but the blatant sordidness of With the Worst Intentions may be a welcome break from the nostalgic and rose-tinted childhood novels set in small towns. The novel’s many misogynists also help confound the preconceptions many Italians have of Jews as wise scholars or lovable comics. What is most likely the cause of its success, however, is its unique voice. In an unflattering review, the communist daily Il Manifesto conceded that for With the Worst Intentions “it is difficult to find comparisons in Italian literature.”

Despite Daniel’s incessant whining, his lament is sometimes lean and piercing, as when his father explains that Daniel is not Jewish, since his mother is Catholic. “Why does that astound you in the end? This is simply your destiny, to be Jewish for the gentiles and gentile for the Jews. Is it so astounding that someone, especially an adolescent, ardently desires to be Jewish? Is it so staggering that a child wants to be like his father? A Jew like all the others.”

Many critics say that Italy has still failed to come to terms with its Fascist past, and With the Worst Intentions takes on a latent anti-Semitism that Piperno identifies in the upper crust of Roman society. Of families like the Cittadinis, Daniel says, “We’re dealing with those anti-Semites who have chosen to live amidst Jews, in the spirit of a zoologist who studies ferocious beasts in darkest Africa without ever forgetting his rifle.”

Bepy’s financial irresponsibility and unchecked appetites lead the family to ruin, but he is nevertheless Piperno’s most effective weapon against anti-Semitism. His quirks are painted vividly enough that he overcomes his faults, or pieces them together, to become a fully human character who defies labels. With Bepy, Piperno tries to answer his original question, “What sense is there remaining Jewish in a Catholic world?” by asserting that a Jew is just as flawed and virtuous as any other person in Rome.

From With the Worst Intentions by Alessandro Piperno

One afternoon, I happened to be in the dusty sitting room of the house in Tel Aviv; the room was draped in an artificial darkness meant to combat the intense summer heat. My aunt was wandering around from room to room, bathed in a delicate air of faded adolescence that perturbed me like nothing else could. In her hand she held an ever-present milk-chocolate bar. She ate chocolate all the time, perhaps in order to alleviate her growing sense of disappointment. The edges of her mouth were always smudged with brown, clouds of hazelnut crème and semi-colons of cocoa that gave her a poignantly childish air. The miracle was that this diet of saturated fat did not in any way affect her sinuous, tapered figure except for the slightest hint of a swelling just above her groin which was so charming that I would have wanted nothing better than to lay my head there to die….

On that afternoon we were alone. Some coins dropped out of her hand. Acting out of the sense of gallantry that her presence always inspired in me, I immediately bent down to pick them up. At that moment, on the floor—in a submissive position that in the following years became for me a preliminary to the pursuance of pleasure—crawling on my hands and knees towards my young aunt like a dog sniffing for truffles, I perceived an odor emanating from her feet. At that very moment, with my head still near the ground and my nostrils flared, I received a gift from that minor god who sanctions the triumphant initiation into adulthood (in this case the word “triumphant” seems particularly fitting). My underwear was filled with the warm liquid which I had been anxiously awaiting for years. And from that moment my life was no longer the same.

—Translated by Marina Harss