Portnoy’s Complaint, a long monologue narrated by a young Jewish man while in analysis, is prefaced by a definition of “Portnoy’s Complaint” as a disorder in which “strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” The book focuses on Portnoy’s parents, his endless adolescent experimentation with masturbation, his youthful sexual encounters with girls, his varied sexual experiences with a model named Monkey, and his pilgrimage to Israel—all of which are punctuated by frequently obscene outcries against the guilt he feels for his sexual obsessions. Roth, who has defended himself and the book many times, claims it is full of dirty words because Portnoy wants to be free: “I wanted to raise obscenity to the level of a subject.”
The book became a cause célèbre in 1969, commented on by social critics and stand-up comedians alike. Most objections to it came from Jewish groups and rabbis who called it “anti-Semitic” and “self-hating” and protested against libraries that put it on their shelves. It was seized in Australia in 1970 and 1971 by Melbourne officials, who filed obscenity charges against it and the bookseller who sold it.