Philip Roth has written some wonderful books but this particular job isn't one of them. Portnoy's Complaint is nothing more than a comedian's shtick -- the undisciplined efforts of a borscht circuit comic "working blue." Poor Philip Roth. He set to be the heir of Lenny Bruce but accidentally fathered that unfortunate by-blow, the egregious Howard Stern, who is Portnoy raised to a power.
Like many nightclub monologists, Roth doesn't bother to develop rounded characters but relies entirely on stereotypes. The women in Portnoy are types reduced to their crudest manifestations: the ignorant Appalachian, the upper-class twit-ess, the sabra soldier. The worst instance of stereotyping: the narrator himself, Alexander Portnoy, who embodies every single characteristic of the stage Jew except avarice and accent. Portnoy -- or parts of it -- would make a great Catskill routine. But a novel it's not.
Is it possible that Philip Roth and Woody Allen are one and the same person? Or aspects of the same person. Both start out doing sex-obsessed comic monologues and both develop into great artists. They employ similar plots and characters (compare Portnoy's gentile girlfriend Mary Jane Reed of West Virginia, whom the monologist half-heartedly tries to educate, with Annie Hall of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, advised to attend adult education classes at NYU by Alvy Singer).
In the coming weeks, class, we will look at other Roth/Allen identities and parallels. They're both satirists and we'll explore the theory that Roth is an acerbic Juvenal while Allen is a genial Horace.
No doubt that Philip Roth is envious of Woody Allen's more distinct features and more compact body, but has anyone actually seen the two together? Or even a picture of them in the same undoctored frame? Until they're sighted in the same room, I'll reserve judgment on whether Roth/Allen is one or two persons.