Unable to abolish the demon through his work or even to describe it convincingly, though it dominates all his waking thoughts, Peter turns to direct autobiography in a desperate gesture of exorcism.
Perhaps the “facts” will speak for themselves and provide relief where the imagination found itself blocked and thwarted. Whatever therapeutic value such a book has for its author, the literary problem remains.
Maureen Tarnopol, who hooks Peter unto wedlock and maneuvers prodigiously to keep him there, is of course the chief tormentor; she plays the female‐monster role assigned to the mother in Portnoy's Complaint” but here the hero can't muster a grain of love to qualify his sense of outrage.
Maureen has the same dramaturgical genius as Sophie Portnoy, the same histrionic powers of manipulation, persistence and emasculation.
Evidently he came to feel that his three earlier books, starting with “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959, were enfeebled by an overdose of Jamesian or Hebraic moral seriousness, which had censored a native but “sub‐literary” gift for farce, mimicry and Lenny Brucean black humor.
Henceforth he would take his material from low rather than high culture, from sick jokes and borscht‐circuit vulgarity, from half‐repressed sexual fantasies and the half‐remembered pop culture of the thirties and forties, from the carney‐barker rather than the genteel, owl‐eyed Jamesian narretor.
Unable to combine love and sensuality his men read like textbook cases out of Freud's essay on “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life.”However painful this feeling of victimization can be for the man, for a writer it can be peculiarly poisonous if it prevents hire from granting full reality to his characters and from getting any distance on the troubles of his protagonist.
The wife Maureen might as well be a creature from Mars: Peter‐‐and Roth—haven't clue about whet makes her tick, or why he stays and collaborates with her.
If there has been a funnier novel in the last 10 years, or one that exploits psychoanalysis and the “family romance” more brilliantly, I don't know what it could be.
Surprisingly, in the light of his ambivalent, even degrading attitudes toward women, Roth's book had the most visible influence on the emerging new women writers, who were just getting into the confessional swing when “Portnoy” appeared.