To Roth, the most important scene – ‘the pumping heart of the book’ – was almost entirely overlooked and has nothing to do with masturbation. It is a seemingly peripheral scene that involves Alex’s Uncle Hymie getting rid of the shiksa cheerleader his son adores…
… and leads to Uncle Hymie’s son, Alex Portnoy’s cousin, enlisting and getting killed in Normandy.* But Mars-Jones is bewildered:
It’s odd for an experienced novelist to be so misguided about the anatomy of his own work, placing the pumping heart of the book round the back of an elbow.
I read Portnoy’s complaint as a middle-aged man so there was no shock in it for me.** The raw liver episode and the Italian girl were almost run-of-the-mill stories from an inevitably dirty adolescence. Alex Portnoy’s parents resembled those of a friend from school, in some ways. But the cousin Heshie–uncle Hymie standoff registered painfully. There was also a nice obedient boy who hanged himself from the shower head.
I’m sure Roth was not the first author to wrap the core of his work in a seemingly peripheral episode. It’s probably an old literary device – I just cannot think of other examples straight away.
*There’s a different version of this tale in American Pastoral, where all ends well… only it doesn’t. The son gets his wish when his fiancee stands up to his old man but things go terribly wrong in the next generation.
**My “shabby little shocker” (so Joseph Kerman wrote of Tosca) was Eduard Limonov’s Edichka, who emerged into the world after Alex Portnoy but before Henry Chinaski’s appearance in Women.