Getting Unstuck

The Climax of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’

It took a timely death and a stint at Yaddo to jolt Philip Roth out of the writer’s block that had kept him from finishing his breakthrough comic novel of lust and masturbation.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

Where would Philip Roth be today without Yaddo? The artists’ retreat is honoring the writer with its inaugural Yaddo Artist Medal, to be given to Roth on May 14 in New York City. In accepting the award, Roth will also be honoring Yaddo, because without Yaddo the Pulitzer Prize-winning author might not ever have finished his first best-seller, Portnoy’s Complaint.

Even before that ode to Jewish angst and masturbation hit the bookstores in 1969, Roth was a Yaddo veteran. In winter 1968, he introduced his writer-cartoonist friend Jules Feiffer to the Saratoga Springs retreat, and got him accepted there. Feiffer was working on his play about two men who befriend each other in college, and then proceed to go through life making love to lots of women without really liking women. That play eventually became the movie Carnal Knowledge, directed by Mike Nichols.

Roth, having just published When She Was Good, was at work on his fourth novel.

For Feiffer, the cold isolation of the upstate New York retreat worked like a tonic. Writing twice the hours he normally did back in Manhattan—it took an hour to walk into Saratoga Springs, if the subfreezing weather didn’t kill you—Feiffer soon had a first draft of his play, which he considered calling The Thirty-Year War.

Roth had less success during that trip to Yaddo. His long-gestating Portnoy’s Complaint remained unfinished, even though he had already sold a chapter of it to Partisan Review. The chapter, “Whacking Off,” had titillated readers of Partisan Review in ways that the readers of William Shawn’s New Yorker never were. He’d been toying with the subject for years, and even had titled two unpublished novels, The Jewboy and Portrait of the Artist, and a play, The Nice Jewish Boy, which had received a workshop with Dustin Hoffman at the American Place Theater in 1964. In essence, all three works, as well as Portnoy’s Complaint, were about the same thing: a Jewish boy, his father, and the Gentile girls—the shiksas—whom they both desired sexually. Having taught at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, Roth noticed that there, among the cornfields and the farm boys, several of his urban Jewish students were prone to writing, in essence, that same story. “The Jewish women are mothers and sisters. The sexual yearning is for the Other,” Roth noted. The shiksa.

Meanwhile, Roth had been entertaining friends with something a bit more theatrical, something that Kenneth Tynan had heard about and would have killed to get his hands on for his upcoming sex revue, Oh! Calcutta! It was, in fact, a slide show or, more accurately, a fantasy slide show that would exhibit the sex parts of the famous, including “L.B.J.’s testicles, Jean Genet’s anus, Mickey Mantle’s penis, Margaret Mead’s breasts, and Elizabeth Taylor’s pubic bush,” which is how Roth described them. He never got around to titling his slide show monologue, because he knew “it was blasphemous, mean, bizarre, scatological, tasteless, spirited,” and therefore would always have to remain unfinished, unperformed, unpublished, and, at best, a private joke for friends after dinner and too many highballs. Roth reckoned that if this slide show monologue ever did surface, it would make his Portnoy’s Complaint “appear to be the work of Louisa May Alcott.”

It could be said, however, that the imaginary slide show monologue begat the very real novel. Roth found 60 or 70 pages about masturbation in the monologue to be “worth saving, if only because it was the only sustained piece of writing on the subject that I could remember reading in a work of fiction.”

For some reason, the most mundane sex had also been the least explored by writers.

But in April 1968, Portnoy’s Complaint, despite its “Whacking Off” chapter in Partisan Review, remained as unfinished as the slide show monologue. Roth couldn’t finish the novel, and his writer’s block had something to do with hating his estranged wife, Margaret Martinson, who would not divorce him after tricking him into marriage by claiming a false pregnancy (verified at the time by her purchase of a vial of urine for $10 from a pregnant woman in Tompkins Square Park). For that deception, Martinson was now receiving about 50 percent of what Roth made as an author, which left him approximately $250 a week. Maybe that had something to do with his not finishing Portnoy’s Complaint, which, Roth knew, could make him as much money as Couples was now making John Updike. It was potentially an awesome sum, 50 percent of which would go to his ex. And it didn’t help that Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, about a Hollywood transsexual, had preceded Updike’s Couples, about spouse swapping, on the best-seller lists that year.

Then something wonderfully awful happened to help Roth complete his own libidinous opus.

Margaret Martinson was killed in a car crash in Central Park. And since her death meant that he no longer had to divide his income, for the first time in years, Roth splurged on a cab to ride across Manhattan to make the necessary arrangements at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Chapel on Madison and Eighty-First Street. Attending the funeral a couple of days later, the writer had to wonder if many of the mourners didn’t consider him an “accomplice,” since the character Martinson had inspired in When She Was Good also came to a violent end. Roth certainly considered the man driving the car, who attended the funeral with no more than a Band-Aid over one eye as proof of the accident, as his “emancipator.”

His writer’s block lifted like a miracle. He immediately contacted the people at Yaddo. He was in need of another round of solitude at the artists’ retreat, and left for Saratoga Springs in record time after putting Margaret in the ground.

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Roth would later write of his escape with unqualified glee: “The bus from Port Authority Terminal was for me very much a part of the stealthy, satisfying ritual of leaving Manhattan for the safe haven of Yaddo….” On the bus ride, he read rough drafts of his chapters. There were only a few other guests at the retreat, and suddenly it was easy for him to work long, 12-hour days—until he’d finished the novel. “I took the bus back down, feeling triumphant and indestructible.”

In addition to completing Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth had survived his wife, who had been conveniently killed. “And I didn’t do it,” he noted. And he had his fourth book, which “unlike any I’d written before in both its exuberance and its design, had been completed in a burst of hard work.”

Random House publisher Bennett Cerf advanced Roth $250,000, which, after his agent, Candido Donadio, took her 10 percent share, expanded the writer’s bank account a hundred times over. He purchased two first-class tickets on the France, a luxury liner passage to England, for his new girlfriend and himself. It was there in London that he watched the 1968 Democratic National Convention on television, a spectacle that included anti-war riots on the Chicago streets, as well as a near fistfight between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley on the little screen.

Portnoy’s Complaint was published January 12, 1969, and quickly rose to the top of the bestseller lists, where it quickly topped Couples and Myra Breckinridge.

Roth has enjoyed seven residencies at Yaddo, beginning in 1964.

From the book SEXPLOSION Copyright 2014 by Robert Hofler. Reprinted by permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Robert Hofler is the theater critic for TheWrap. In addition to Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos, Hofler is author of the Allan Carr bio Party Animals and the Henry Willson bio The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson.