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Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth (1969)

The bard of Newark’s take on sex, Jewish mothers, and how to prepare liver

Josh Lambert
September 17, 2013

Read it once, laugh your ass off, get squicked out, maybe take offense. Let yourself imagine Roth wrote it the way that it sounds, in a three-week spurt of perverse inspiration. Then read it again, and consider that it took the surest-handed postwar novelist seven agonizing years to compose, through thousands of pages of discarded dead ends and meticulously revised drafts. Realize, then, that it’s not just the funniest stand-up comedy routine ever, written down—it’s also the most brilliant riff on diaspora and sexuality since the Tanakh. No wonder some consider it scripture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.