Molly McQuade (bio)



A Fan's Index to Portnoy's Complaint



A Long Preface


There’s something enchanting about an inventory, no matter whose it is or what is listed on it, no matter how many items happen to be mentioned, or even in which languages. Joseph Cornell, among others, understood this. He was possessed by the very things he took into his possession and inventoried as an informal urban archaeologist. If Cornell carefully presented and edited—sorted and re-sorted—the stuff of his life’s trove, he also hoarded the leavings and remainders as a source of art to come. Visually his boxes indexed a self and a city (New York) that never stayed put.

Most indexes, though, are commonly made of words. The indexer, an ill-paid scavenger, removes especially “telling” words from a book or a manuscript for safekeeping. Those words are then housed in her index. Once removed from the manuscript or book and alphabetized, the words offer a map to the wayward reader. The indexer is modestly rewarded for the service rendered; but if the index is any good, the book gains more than she does.

Still, indexes are rarely regarded as anything other than supplements to their books. Even a brief preface accounts for a lot, and a long afterward can carry weight. An index, though, cannot be a book. Why ever not? One map, after all, isn’t the same as the next; we choose our favorites based on the cartographer’s calligraphy and the ripple of the continents, based on the lilt of Latin place-names in old empires.

If no map is just a map, then why belittle an index?


Critic and novelist Thomas Mallon writes in “Indexterity,” his 1991 essay: “The etymology of the word ‘index’ takes you back to the Latin for ‘forefinger.’ ” To point is to name, and to name is to keep; an index suggests coveted ownership. The bigger the index, the more promising to Mallon it seems: “Sometimes an index is so copious that it becomes a readerly pleasure in itself.” Perhaps because an index first serves the writer of a book, who may or may not have composed the index, “the most avid readers of indexes are no doubt writers,” Mallon insists, and even the writers who pore over other people’s indexes may do so in a happily self-interested spirit. “[B]efore sending over one of his books to Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote, ‘Hi, Norman,’ next to the index entry for ‘Norman Mailer,’ ” crows Mallon.

Copious or not, an index sets out mainly to winnow the information given by a book. “The chief purpose of an index is distillation,” Mallon observes, “and in performing that task it can manage to suggest a life’s incongruities with a concision that the most powerful biographical stylist may have trouble matching.” Yes—especially if the indexer proceeds with a stylistic intention. A map is not a map without a mapmaker of some ambition.


When, if ever, does an indexer become an artist?

From greed. From practice.

I feel incipient, increasing greed for the book read too often over the years. Reading it again, I yearn for even more from it. And yet, getting more only intensifies the greed, somehow. I mostly want what I can’t have. And because I keep on wanting but not quite getting, I reread.

The indexer tries out keys from a long chain, one after another, until suddenly she’s in a big room, so big she’ll never reach the far wall. The room shifts, streaky with sun and the suggestion of a billowing wind beyond. But she’d rather remain in the room and connive with the rows of words she’s withdrawing slowly from the book to make the index with. She would prefer to poke, stir, rearrange.

“Convince me,” urges the book of the indexer. “Convince me that you understand.”


The book is the champ; the book is the star. On the other hand, the hired indexer works as a professional understudy. As a guild, indexers can’t create, but do we ever edit! With a handwriting fibrous and filial, we merely write “after” another. We are professional scriptorial eavesdroppers.

An understudy knows everything the star knows, yet receives none of the attention. Understudies have to try a little harder. And they have to wait. Their waiting is supposed to gather strength for the person who is sometimes left behind in all the understudy’s effort. Waiting is a muscle which, if exercised routinely, can become useful.


I am the uncomplaining understudy of Alexander Portnoy. He is my better half. I am his waiting ear. Soon I will come to know his lines as well as he does. Although my role is a touch mischievous, my greed is wholehearted and sincere.

I am his understudy at a time when Alex particularly deserves me and my attention, because his audience has mostly left the theater. His fans live in the archives, where his enemies remember him better.

His enemies may always need him more than he needs them. In 1969, Anatole Broyard called the then-just-published Portnoy’s Complaint “a sort of Moby Dick of masturbation” in which “[e]verything is oversimplified as a comic strip . . . Portnoy is not so much a human being as a monomaniacal hang-up.” Carped Kingsley Amis, “I did not find Mr. Roth’s book funny.” (Also despaired Amis in his review for Harper’s, “The last sixty pages of the book consist virtually of appendices . . . odd scraps that would not go in earlier.”) Above all, Amis raised an eyebrow at Alexander’s “wang” and at Portnoy’s busy solo work with it. “I only wish Mr. Roth had shown us Portnoy senior lecturing his son on the dangers of this dreadful habit,” sniffed the critic.

Irving Howe accused Roth of “literary narcissism”: “[I]t is Roth who has taken over, shouldering aside his characters and performing on his own . . . the cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice.” Many Jews who read it once attacked the author for his satire of Jewish life and morals; women did and do hate Alex because he fucks with their minds and bodies. Even Roth flinched at his “overnight notoriety” and his “new reputation as a crazed penis,” but meanwhile he proclaimed of Portnoy, “I wanted to raise obscenity to the level of a subject.” And he went further. “I have always been far more pleased by my good fortune in being born a Jew than my critics may begin to imagine,” Roth protested. “It’s a complicated, interesting, morally demanding, and very singular experience, and I like that.”


If I am an understudy, then that is because Alex has a big mouth, and I have a small one. Envy can be of no use to me. I aim not to please but to learn.

A few things I have learned from Portnoy: this novel, although called a complaint, is instead a song. I think there is no book more oral than this one. Portnoy’s kibitzing caterwaul flies up to the gallery seats; yet his stage whisper should be cherished by first-row ticket holders for the thirty-three-year-old bachelor’s lyric moxie. The book begins with a dictionary definition, and ends with an exalting scream. Is this not a blissful vocal range? In between, the man’s confessional aria attains subtle degrees of valor, rage, shame, and noisiness. The author’s frequent and shrewdly feverish use of italics, capitalized words, dashes, exclamations, and question marks, sometimes massed in densely extended sequence, conveys swollen emotion with a fat lip—Portnoy’s audacious, pugnacious agon. And Roth’s selective inclusion of Yiddish gives Alex the chance to flourish his voice more than common English could, for Yiddish phrases know how to flare and burst. Cries Alex, “Oh, and the milchiks and flaishiks besides, all those meshuggeneh rules and regulations on top of their own private craziness!” In this untranslated flash of sluggishly staccato consonants, I hear music.

Roth has written of Saul Bellow, “Engorged sentences had existed before in American fiction . . . but not quite like those in Augie March [1953], which strike me as more than liberty-taking . . . . There are sentences in the book whose effervescence, whose undercurrent of buoyancy leave one with the sense of so much going on, a theatrical, exhibitionistic, ardent prose tangle that lets in the dynamism of living without driving mentalness out.” The description fits Portnoy’s Complaint, a book written just a few years after Augie, with remarkably little adjustment.

As understudy I also cock an ear to Roth’s literary comments on the literature he has wrought. The comments disentangle him from Alex and reveal Roth as the resident vocal coach:

Strictly speaking, the writing of Portnoy’s Complaint
began with discovering Portnoy’s voice—more accurately,
his mouth—and discovering, along with it, the listening ear:
the silent Dr. Spielvogel.

Beginning with Goodbye, Columbus, I’ve been attracted to
prose that has the turns, vibrations, intonations, and cadences, the spontaneity and ease, of spoken language, at the same time that it is solidly grounded on the page, weighted with the irony, precision, and ambiguity associated with a more traditional
literary rhetoric.


One rhetoric deserves another. As the last act of an understudy, I will present an index as my only bona fide performance. This isn’t mandatory, yet I feel I must do it, with the clammy hands and the addled brain of a scriptorial obsessive. I have edited and re-edited my little index, checked the page numbers and the pages with an embarrassing wariness, because I know this is the best that I can offer. It is my chance to leave myself behind; it is my chance to be a scrupulous auditor.

A short afterword will aim to acclimate and soothe those readers of the index who survive my zealously alphabetized entries.

An Index


Aaaa . . . hhhh!!!!!, p. 274
afflicted, p. 5
Alice Dembosky, p. 59
All-Bran, p. 115
anything but ladylike, p. 218
apertures and openings, p. 104


Baby, please, don’t howl, p. 105
bamboozled, p. 91
being boffed, p. 103
Big John’s shlong, p. 211
Bubbles Girardi, p. 165


Catholic bullshit, p. 98
chocolate pudding, p. 88
Commissioner of Cunt, p. 204


Deck her, Jake!, p. 88
diarrhea, p. 19
Diaspora, p. 265
Do I exaggerate?, p. 102
do it!, p. 79
Doctor Izzie, p. 39
Doctor Spielvogel, p. 36
dongs, p. 122
“Don’t be dumb like your father,” p. 5


eh?, p. 60
enema bag, p. 26
enigma at its center, p. 65
evil-smelling liquid, p. 5
exhaustion and inertia, p. 105


fantasy, p. 4
fifty-foot fashion model!, p. 204
Fucking Hebrew saint!, p. 265


Garter Belt, p. 155
gastric, p. 112
God, p. 73
gorge themselves upon anything and everything that moves, p. 81
goy, p. 233
guilt-ridden, p. 119


Hannah’s brassiere, p. 21
Heshie’s wisdom?, p. 64
his bowels, p. 118
holler, p. 15
Holy Protestant Empire!, p. 39
how many cocks have I got?, p. 137


I fuck out of obligation, p. 102
“I know a poem,” p. 191
I win the right to get the syph!, p. 177
illicit pleasure, p. 66


Jane Powell, p. 151
jello, p. 20
jerking off, p. 20
Jersey City, p. 96
Jewish desperado, p. 84
Joy! Sheer joy!, p. 119


Kay Campbell, p. 230
kishkas, p. 92
kvetching, p. 94


Lake Hopatcong, p. 219
Latinate, p. 170
Lenore Lapidus’s big fat red-hot brassiere, p. 21
Lina, p. 137
little prick, p. 64
lowly creature, p. 81
lunatic asylum, p. 89


making believe, p. 179
Mom, those galoshes!, p. 86
Mr. Big Shot, p. 61
Mr. Insurance Man, p. 10
Mr. Smart Guy, p. 24
Mrs. Nimkin, p. 97
my apostasy, p. 72
my boyhood, p. 95
my left testicle, p. 38
my slut, p. 159


Newark, p. 219
nice Jewish boy, p. 120
not a twat, p. 211


Oedipal rage, p. 64
Oh, poor Mother, p. 86
Only let me finish, p. 114
Oogie Pringle, p. 151


Partisan Review
, p. 9
pedalpushers, p. 98
Philistine father of mine!, p. 9
poetry to deepen my understanding, p. 56
prunes!, p. 8
pumpernickel, p. 56


quaking, p. 79
question, p. 80


Rabbi Golden, p. 98
Rabbi Warshaw, p. 73
reckless abandon, p. 91
ritualized bellyaching, p. 94
Rosh Hashanah, p. 60


Samuel Beckett, p. 163
Saratoga Springs, p. 94
schmegeggy, p. 97
schnoz, p. 151
scream, p. 61
Seymour Schmuck, p. 99
shlep those bags, p. 117
shriveled up with veneration, p. 144
sleeping shikse’s golden arm!, p. 133
slimy, suicidal Dionysian side, p. 79
So American!, p. 170
LIKE, p. 109
spatula, p. 96
spermatozoa by the gallon, p. 157
sucking and sucking, p. 76
suffering, p. 11


Talmud, p. 62
Temper Tantrum Kid, p. 230
The Monkey, p. 210
their underwear, p. 137
those fucking syllables!, p. 74
tickling my prickling!, p. 133
transparent stockings, p. 45


unimaginable, p. 79
unruffled nonchalance, p. 71


vainly trying all my life successfully to sink, p. 135
very nice talk, p. 115
victim shit!, p. 135
vividness and excitement, p. 95
vying, p. 118


Wagnerian pitch, p. 190
weeping, p. 11
Weequahic Diner, p. 125
Whew! Have I got grievances!, p. 94
whisper in Italian, p. 136
“Who used to suck us all off?,” p. 175
who wins an argument with a hard-on?, p. 128
whore’s legs, p. 137
Worry, Fear & Frustration, p. 26




“your real Jewish chopped liver,” p. 84


zombie, p. 125
zylon jacket, p. 128

A Short Afterword

So, have I got a problem with a fetish?

The pure sound of Portnoy is revealed beyond doubt, so I believe, in my understudy’s opus of the index. And the sound’s reverberations reveal the lilt, rant, and soulful squawk of this novel as a feisty, worldly song of himself by Mr. Portnoy.

But I also would claim more for Portnoy—greedily. To me the novel is no more or less than a long lyric poem concluding with a devilish yelp at the end that recalls Don Giovanni. Actually, Portnoy—novel or poem—is all yelp, written as a single shout from start to finish, a vocally roguish theme-and-variations. (In other words, we might read each alphabetized entry as a lyric stanza.) To hear the novel as a poem that doesn’t try too obviously to be one turns my head. In a glistening new way, I begin to love it.

Poetry often arrives in a book with assumptions and history attached, whether to the poem, the poet, or the reader. Though sometimes enjoyable in their own right, those assumptions and that history do compete with the poem for my attention, like extra violins or the wrong trombone in a packed theater. Such extras can be burdensome. Why not resent them?

To hear the poem without gratuitous intrusions or accompaniments is to hear poetry as a place of origin, not a stop along the way or a coincidental co-production. I prefer that. The poem is primary. The critic may not be needed, unless the critic also dares to write a poem.

Removed and pristinely isolated from their robustly engulfing narrative, the words and phrases here indexed from Portnoy suggest the enormous care Roth must have taken to choose and compose them in the first place, a care which we couldn’t notice sooner because the fiction seemed only to be fiction, a long storytelling sentence looped discursively around one man, Alex. To unmoor the sentence as I have done may show a certain perversity, but one conducted with an ethical intention. I want to hear plainly. I want to hear truly, if that isn’t too old-fashioned. And as the lesser half of Alex, I am under an obligation to interpret his star power regardless of the calumny thrown at him once upon a time, when the critics were busy defending a Jewish literary tradition that Roth could not take entirely seriously. His poem of revolt, written in the emphatic demotic, idealized nothing about the Jewish past or present, and it recommends the raging, howling song as a peculiarly American oeuvre.

So, have I got a problem with a fetish?

Yes, I do. For I stare at words or things—the pinky of a Buddha, the foam on a coffee—with a doomful patience, as if they all might equally convey significance. I feel aesthetic sadness because I am goaded by myself to observe beyond the proper limit, compelled to siphon and decant this rumored significance. I eavesdrop on star quality with a deadpan gusto that can’t possibly redeem me, and yet I hope it will anyhow, now or later.

“The text is a fetish, and this fetish desires me.” My gloom of a reader, my gloom of an understudy, asks for a little something in return for service, despite my obsequious modesty, and finds it where Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text found it, in the hope of being coveted as I would covet—and by the very thing I covet!

Yet I also feel guilty for my dubious editorial finagling with Portnoy, which was written without me and surely can’t need or possibly desire me. I may deserve a fetish, but I don’t deserve to be desired in return by this one. Finagling: twiddling my thumbs: doodling with my pen: aren’t they all time-wasters, a way to avoid making something, rather like what used to be called onanism, which happens to be Alex’s great love and private hobby? Still, I finagle. I finagle much too patiently.

I finagle because I remain fascinated by Alex’s vocal performance, and though I hear it, can do little to explain it. I value performance for its own sake, regardless of any concerns adjacent to it. Like Richard Poirier, I believe that “it’s performance that matters—pacing, economies, juxtapositions, aggregations of tone, the whole conduct of the shaping presence.” Like Poirier, I wonder, “Why isn’t there more talk about pleasure, about the excitement of witnessing a performance, about the excitement that goes into a performance of any kind? Such talk could set in motion a radical and acutely necessary amendment to the literary and club rules.” And, like Poirier, I regard the poet as a performer not often admired appropriately.

“In a way,” Poirier comments, “a performance in poetry can prove not that the world is too tough for the performer but that he is too tough for the world.” The valor of Roth in writing his Portnoy poem, even if not ever fully recognized, is to me both real and poignant, the evidence of an arduous ardor. The poet must make his own bed, etc. The poet is the prizefighter.

Observes Poirier, “The scene of the poem is more expanded and expansive than the scene which is the world, and the poet’s relationship to the scene of the poem is necessarily dynamic, exploratory, coolly executed to a degree that no comparable ‘scene’ in life could very well bear.”

If Roth could index a difficult world, then why shouldn’t I index Portnoy?

We finagle because we have to.