A succès de scandale if ever there was one, Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s fourth book of fiction, will soon be 45 years old. At the center of the novel’s scandalousness, which recounts the 33-year-old Alexander Portnoy’s reporting to his psychoanalyst the emergence of his repressed desires growing up in a middle-class Jewish home, was its emphasis on masturbation, or “the secret vice,” as the Victorian medical encyclopedias used to call it. The novel’s last sentence, spoken by the analyst, Dr. Spielvogel, reads: “Now veee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
Roth ends things there, and never takes up the character of Alexander Portnoy again. The author wrote several novels told through a character he named Nathan Zuckerman, and a series of others told by a character called David Kepesh, but he left Alexander Portnoy to wither and die on the analysand’s couch. Isn’t it, one wonders, time for a sequel? Roth has announced his retirement and so clearly isn’t the man for the job. I don’t claim to be that man, either, but I thought I might leave a few notes for anyone interested in taking up the task.
The sequel, which might be called Portnoy’s Children or Putting the Kid Back in Yid, would begin after Alexander Portnoy’s successful psychoanalysis has come to an end. The psychoanalysis is considered successful insofar as it has diminished his libido and deprived him of all powers of sexual fantasy. Portnoy gives up on chasing shikses, or gentile women, and soon marries a perfectly bourgeois Jewish woman named Lilly Spitzer. Before long, they have a son they name Eliot, a good student type—he will go on to Princeton and Harvard Law School—but with something a touch odd about him. Portnoy notices, for example, that his supply of Viagra is short, and he detects Eliot putting it in his milkshakes.
After five or so years, Portnoy realizes that in marrying Lilly he has really married his mother—the nightmarish, relentless nudge Sophie Portnoy—with a crippling standard of high maintenance added. He and Lilly undergo a bitter divorce in which Lilly wins custody of their son, whose affections for his father she alienates totally.
In the years ahead, Portnoy watches from the sidelines as Eliot, after departing Harvard Law School, launches a successful financial career and goes into New York politics, first as a crusading attorney general, then as governor. All comes tumbling down when Eliot, a married man, is caught availing himself of $2,000-an-hour prostitutes, for whose services he pays with a credit card. Was he going for airline miles? Portnoy wonders, as he recalls the boy’s drinking those Viagra milkshakes.
Not long after his divorce, Portnoy remarries, this time to a less aggressive woman named Louise Weiner. She is pudgy, meek, and not particularly attractive. They, too, have a son together, named Anthony. Portnoy is determined not to lose the love of this boy, whose affection he sedulously cultivates. He coaches the kid’s little league and hockey teams. He takes the boy alone on camping trips. The kid strikes Portnoy as clever—not the good student his older brother was, but with street smarts and a good heart. So Portnoy is all the more shocked when he is called by the principal of his son’s high school and learns that Anthony has been found to have obscene postcards in his locker. What is it with these children of his? Are the sins of the father being visited upon the sons?
Portnoy discovers he is not an ideal husband when his second wife begins a divorce action against him, charging sexual neglect. “I had no notion she was interested in sex,” Portnoy tells his lawyer. As with his first wife, Louise wins custody of their son. Father and son drift apart, and this boy, too, becomes enthralled by politics, serving as a New York City councilman and later as a popular congressman.
Anthony is riding high when a sexual scandal his father does not quite understand—something to do with his sending photographs of his private parts over the Internet—brings him down. The humiliation ratio is added to by Anthony’s long before having taken his mother’s maiden name, and weiner jokes abound. Portnoy thinks to call his son to offer comfort, but then thinks otherwise.
The denouement of Portnoy’s Children entails both of Portnoy’s sons attempting comebacks after their disastrous scandals. Eliot is planning to start slowly on the road to rebuilding his career by running for New York comptroller; Anthony, a higher roller, runs for mayor of New York. Portnoy finds himself appalled by the effrontery, the sheer chutzpah, of his children. On Election Day, he votes against both his sons. On the last page of the novel, Alexander Portnoy, now 80 years old, goes back into psychoanalysis.
Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, with Frederic Raphael, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.