The Sporadic Beaver

Port Noise Complaint

March 15, 2013

Tags: Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, Kendra Holliday

I mentioned in yesterday's post, "Old School", how Portnoy's Complaint had blown my mind at "a tender age." As Philip Roth's 80th birthday is March 19, the tale of how this happened bears repeating. I originally told the story in my interview with Kendra Holliday of The Beautiful Kind, when she asked me about my influences as writer, and I said that Roth was among my "Holy Trinity" of influences. Here's the story:

As for Philip Roth, whom I also quote at the beginning of Beaver Street, no book has ever blown my mind the way that Portnoy's Complaint did when I read it at 16. My aunt had gotten the book through a book-of-the-month club. We were visiting her in New Jersey one day, and she's telling my parents about this disgusting book that she wants to get out of the house. I'm listening to the conversation, and I think she's saying "Port Noise Complaint," which sounds like a boring book about people complaining about foghorns and squawking seagulls. I couldn't figure out what the big deal was. Anyway, she gives the book to my parents, and a couple of days later I'm sitting at my desk, doing homework. I look up at the bookshelf, and the title catches my eye. Oh, PORTNOY'S Complaint. So I start reading it, and by the time I got to the chapter called "Whacking Off," I understood why everybody in the world was talking about it.

Old School

March 14, 2013

Tags: Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint, writing

A younger Philip Roth in Newark, NJ. Photo from Philip Roth: Unmasked © Bob Peterson.
Philip Roth: Unmasked, the new documentary by William Karel and Livia Manera, is playing for free this week at the Film Forum, in Manhattan, so I went around the corner last night and saw it. (It will be broadcast March 29, on PBS.)

Having had Portnoy’s Complaint blow my mind at a tender age; having then read about half of Roth's prodigious 30-book output; and having been profoundly influenced by his writing, I found the film mesmerizing and instructive. Roth is as witty and compelling in person as he is in his books. Listening to him talk, for 90 minutes, about his early life, his parents, his process, his work habits, and the reaction to his books, made him seem like the kind of entertaining fellow I'd enjoy hanging out with, which I suppose was the point. Roth knows how to perform for the camera.

His tale of a cab driver named Portnoy picking him up soon after Portnoy’s Complaint became a scandalous sensation is typical of the stories he tells throughout the film. Roth asks the cabbie, who doesn’t recognize him, if people have been giving him a hard time since the book came out. Portnoy tells Roth that everybody who gets into the cab makes some kind of joke about his name. “I want to kill the son of a bitch who wrote that book,” he says. When the ride ends, Roth tells him that he wrote the book. “You son of a bitch!” Portnoy says. “I thought it was you.” Roth gives him a $20 tip.

Though Roth retired this year, one of the most striking things about the film is how old school he is. Not once does he mention the Internet, e-books, tweeting, blogging, or any of a dozen other things that working 21st century writers must contend with. There’s exactly one shot of a computer—it appears to be an early-1990s model—but you don’t see Roth using it. He writes with a pen, standing up at a podium-like desk, in his Connecticut house. Writing standing up, he explains, makes it easier to think, and anytime he gets stuck, he just walks around his study until the ideas flow again.

Most of what Roth says further illuminates aspects of his life and career I already knew about. I didn’t know, however, that he dated Mia Farrow (she discusses their “friendship”), and that chronic back pain nearly drove him to suicide. A shot of Roth hobbling along a path in a cemetery drives home just how frail he is, and that his 80th birthday is impending. He says that the idea of death makes him feel “sad,” but it doesn’t worry him.

One bit of practical advice I got from the film: Roth says that any time a writer is born into a family, the family is “ruined.” He then explains that you can’t publish a book like Portnoy’s Complaint without preparing your parents. Which reminded me that I’ve got some of my own preparing to do, and that it would be a very good idea to do it before I publish any future volumes.