Tuesday, October 03, 2006

# 52 Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

In his “business life” the centathlete has, it must be admitted, conversed with thousands of professionals on the phone, self-introduction required. The plain announcement of his surname has cued on many occasions, for a certain audience, a common response.

“Menche” sounds like
mensch, a Yiddish term meaning “upstanding guy,” often preceded by “a real.” This definition was fortuitously superimposed on the extant German mensch, which connotes “man” or “human being”. (The spelling difference doesn’t seem to be a product of Americanization, since Menches exist in Germany.) But this is no news to Menches and Jews.

One day, when the centathlete was in elementary school, he was summoned via the PA by a doddering secretary who pronounced his name as “Menky.” This error elicited classroom comparisons to “Monkey” and, as you might imagine, accordant jeers. But it’s all good…now.

Back to that response. “Menche?” The speaker on the other end typically softens his voice and laughs lightly or chuckles deeply, according to the gradations of your
auditory perception. There’s profundity in that sound. It doesn’t belong to one person; it’s a social reflex, a bubble-burst of a perspective-soup simmering over centuries. “Heh heh heh”—an immediate, fond recognition and transmission of a culture, inflected with an unspoken inquiry into ethnic membership.

The centathlete wouldn’t lie; he’s a
goy. And he won’t throw around any more Yiddish, because that’s been lampooned memorably in the mockumentary, A Mighty Wind, when Lars Olfen, played by Aryan-appearing Ed Begley Jr. (comma before the “Jr.”?—the centathlete prefers to save a keystroke) ridiculously tries, through vocabulary, to evince simpatico dealings with Jews.

The centathlete has been a groomsman at several Jewish weddings. At one, during a fit of especially jocular camaraderie, after managing to induce laughter over some minor topic, he was embraced firmly and told, “You should have been a Jew!” The squeezer’s last name was Roth (a German
name for a redhead).

This brings us to the author,
Philip Roth (probably not related to the fellow groomsman in question). Before reading Portnoy’s Complaint, the centathlete, through personal experience, already associated humor, Jewishness, and language. The novel affirmed that linkage a thousandfold.

Do you know which HBO channel currently shows
Curb Your Enthusiasm? Envision Larry David on performance-enhancing drugs, ranting from his therapist’s couch about castrating mother-son intimacies and raunchy hijinks with girlfriends nicknamed “The Monkey,” “The Pilgrim,” and “Pumpkin.” Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy presents a literary Goliath to the small-screen David—but if there were a whine-a-thon between these two icons the giant would win.

Did you enjoy every Seinfeld episode (there were
180) to the extent that you actually celebrate Festivus (“for the rest of us”)? Portnoy is also a recognizably neurotic, libidinal and uncensored uncle to George Costanza.

The book, published in 1969, was influenced by the edgy comedy of
Lenny Bruce, who entertained and offended Americans in the early 60’s—the same period that spawned the art-folk scene satirized by A Mighty Wind—and propelled stand-up comedy, that seminal American cultural achievement. The centathlete recalls the dramatization of a Bruce riff during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Underworld by Don DeLillo:

“You’re a product of your geography. If you’re a Catholic from New York, you’re a Jew. If you’re a Jew from Butte, Montana, you’re a totally goyish concoction. You’re like instant mashed potatoes…”
DeLillo’s Bruce brings back for the centathlete, a native Long Islander, questions and expressions of identity—and that’s not
small potatoes for contemplation.

Portnoy’s Complaint takes place partly in Newark, NJ, Philip Roth’s birthplace and a setting for many of his works. To the centathlete and perhaps others, that city has been undergoing a “rebirth” for decades. This protracted gestational period suggests an elephant will eventually emerge.

While we await Newark’s Second Coming, pacing an imaginary hospital hall like menschen or idling in the viny, whiny jungle of the mind like chimps, we can do worse than “swing” with Alexander Portnoy. Snorts! Giggles! Roars! The centathlon, at least this stretch, is funny, isn’t it?! Portnoy agrees:

“Correct, Monkey, correct!”


Coming soon…

Centathlon vs. Centathlon
# 64 The Catcher in the Rye

3 comments:

gregstclair said...

Hey I posted a comment and it didn't show, what kind of joint is this ? Why I ought to...

This is actually a great blog. Keep up the good work. I'd say I read about a 1/4 of the works as well, maybe will try to read more,but hey I probably will need to see JAckass Number 2, a few more times with any upcoming free time. Now that is art, worthy of modern man.

Anonymous said...

"Laugh while you can Monky Boy!" (John something-or-other from Buckaroo Bonzai)

Not sure what the Centathlete is really trying to say on this one. Methinks he connects to Roth's writing style. Though I've not read Roth... I know that Mr. Michael Menky draws heavily on personal history in his works.

The Jewish not-so-side-bar makes me think that Roth's writing is more immersive in his larger heritage than his NJ background.

But is this a recommendation or something completely different. I'm left wondering why this work is part of the centathlon. Is it a work that stands on it's own... or is it included for PC reasons? It makes me think it may be more entertaining than deep... where a Chiam Potok piece might be more expected.

But like the original post... I think I'm starting to slide into a streaming ramble. Maybe I should actually read the piece before commenting. BTY... is the set of criteria known for inclussion in the list? Ultimately...

Is this one worth reading? Anyone? Beuler? Beuler?

The Centathlete said...

What you don't read can't hurt you...