Checking Portnoy’s Complaint on Philip Roth’s birthday

He used to brew dried senna leaves in a saucepan, and that, along with the suppository melting invisibly in his rectum, comprised his witchcraft: brewing those vein green leaves, stirring with a spoon the evil-smelling liquid, then carefully pouring it  into a  strainer,  and  hence  into  his  blockaded  body, through that weary and afflicted expression on his face. And then hunched silently above the empty glass, as though listening for distant thunder, he awaits the miracle . . . As a little boy I sometimes sat in the kitchen and waited with him. But the miracle never came, not at least as we imagined and prayed it would, as a lifting of the sentence, a total deliverance from the plague. I remember that when they announced over the radio the explosion of the first atom bomb, he said aloud, Maybe that would do the job. But all catharses were in vain for that man: his kishkas were gripped by the iron hand of outrage and frustration. Among his other misfortunes, I was his wife’s favorite.

To make life harder, he loved me himself. He too saw in me the family’s opportunity to be as good as anybody, our chance to win honor and respect-though when I was small the way he chose to talk of his ambitions for me was mostly in terms of money. Don’t be dumb like your father, he would say, joking with the little boy on his lap,  don’t marry beautiful, don’t marry love-marry rich. No, no, he didn’t like being looked down upon one bit. Like a dog he worked-only for a future that he wasn’t slated to have. Nobody ever really gave him satisfaction, return commensurate with goods delivered- not my mother, not me, not even my loving sister, whose husband he still considers a Communist (though he is a partner today in a profitable soft-drink business, and owns his own home in West Orange). And surely not that billion-dollar Protestant outfit (or institution, as they prefer to think of themselves) by whom he was exploited to the full. ‘The Most Benevolent Financial Institution in America I remember my father announcing, when he took me for the first time to see his little square area of desk and chair in the vast offices of Boston Northeastern Life. Yes, before his son he spoke with pride of The Company ; no sense demeaning himself by knocking them in public-after all, they had paid him a wage during the Depression; they gave him stationery with his own name printed beneath a picture of the May flower, their insignia ( and by extension his, ha ha); and every spring, in the fullness of their benevolence, they sent him and my mother for a hotsy-totsy free weekend in Atlantic City, to a fancy goyische hotel no less, there (along with all the other insurance agents in the Middle Atlantic states who had exceeded the A.E.S., their annual expectation of sales) to be intimidated by the desk clerk, the waiter, the bellboy, not to mention the puzzled paying guests.

Also, he believed passionately in what he was selling, yet another source of anguish and drain upon his energies.

He wasn’t just saving his own soul when he donned his coat and hat after dinner and went out again to resume his work-no, it was also to save some poor son of a bitch on the brink of letting his insurance policy lapse, and thus endangering his family’s security in the event of a rainy day. Alex, he used to explain to me, a man has got to have an umbrella for a rainy day. You don’t leave a wife and a child out in the rain without an umbrella! And though to me, at five and six years of age, what he said made perfect, even moving, sense, that apparently was not always the reception his rainy-day speech received from the callow Poles, and violent Irishmen, and illiterate Negroes who lived in the impoverished districts that had been given him to canvass by The Most Benevolent Financial Institution in America.

They laughed at him, down in the slums. They didn’t listen. They heard him knock, and throwing their empties against the door, called out, Go away, nobody home. They set their dogs to sink their teeth into his persistent Jewish ass. And still, over the years, he managed to accumulate from The Company enough plaques and scrolls and medals honoring his salesmanship to cover an entire wall of the long windowless hallway where our Passover dishes were stored in cartons and our Oriental rugs lay mummified in their thick wrappings of tar paper over the summer. If he squeezed blood from a stone, wouldn’t The Company reward him with a miracle of its own? Might not The President up in The Home Office get wind of his accomplishment and turn him overnight from an agent at five thousand a year to a district manager at fifteen? But where they had him they kept him. Who else would work such barren territory with such incredible results? Moreover, there had not been a Jewish manager in the entire history of Boston Northeastern ( Not Quite Our Class, Dear, as they used to say on the Mayflower), and my father, with his eighth-grade education, wasn’t exactly suited to be the Jackie Robinson of the insurance business.

N. Everett Lindabury, Boston Northeastern’s president, had his picture hanging in our hallway. The framed photograph had been awarded to my father after he had sold his first million dollars’ worth of insurance, or maybe that’s what came after you hit the ten-million mark. Mr. Lindabury, ‘The Home Office . . . my father made it sound to me like Roosevelt in the White House in Washington . . . and all the while how he hated their guts, Lindabury’s particularly, with his corn-silk hair and his crisp New England speech, the sons in Harvard College and the daughters in finishing school, oh the whole pack of them up there in Massachusetts, shkotzim fox-hunting! playing polo! (sol heard him one night, bellowing behind his bedroom door)- and thus keeping him, you see, from being a hero in the eyes of his wife and children. What wrath! What fury! And there was really no one to unleash it on-except himself. Why can’t I move my bowels- I’m up to my ass in prunes! Why do I have these headaches! Where are my glasses! Who took my hat!

In that ferocious and self-annihilating way in which so many Jewish men of his generation served their families, my father served my mother, my sister Hannah, but particularly me. Where he had been imprisoned, I would fly: that was his dream. Mine was its corollary: in my liberation would be his- from ignorance, from exploitation, from anonymity. To this day our destinies remain scrambled together in my imagination, and there are still too many times when, upon reading in some book a passage that impresses me with its logic or its wisdom, instantly, involuntarily, I think, If only he could read this. Yes! Read, and understand- ! Still hoping, you see, still if- onlying, at the age of thirty-three . . . Back in my freshman year of college, when I was even more the son struggling to make the father understand- back when it seemed that it was either his understanding or his life I remember that I tore the subscription blank out of one of those intellectual journals I had myself just begun to discover in the college library, filled in his name and our home address, and sent off an anonymous gift subscription. But when I came sullenly home at Christmastime to visit and condemn, the Partisan Review was nowhere to be found.Colliers, Hygeia, Look, but where was his Partisan Review? Thrown out unopened- I thought in my arrogance and heartbreak-discarded unread, considered junk-mail by this schmuck, this moron, this Philistine father of mine!

 

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