Portnoy's Complaint and The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao are two bildungsroman (coming of age stories) that suggest there are profound discrepancies between exterior and interior realities. Like The Bonfire of the Vanities, another classic chronicle of the tension between social personas and the dark underbelly of individual psychologies, these stories suggest that to be an American is to have a divided self. In all three novels, main characters project a moral, often a seemingly asexual surface, but beneath that social self, darker and more passionate desires seethe within. Each character has a sexual fantasy or obsession: in the case of Alexander Portnoy, it is gentile females, in the case of Sherman McCoy it is a lower-class woman, in the case of Oscar Wao it is beautiful women he can never have because of his physical appearance.
The titular hero of Phillip Roth's classic Jewish-American saga is a successful attorney who works to help impoverished individuals. He is highly regarded in his profession. However, most of the book unfurls as a dark saga of Portnoy's sexual desires, as expressed in a long, running monologue to a therapist named Dr. Spielvogel who never speaks a word throughout the story. In resistance to the pressure to be 'good' imposed upon him by his overbearing mother, the young Portnoy finds himself expressing his rage by masturbating using the liver intended for the family dinner. He lusts after forbidden gentile woman in a manner that would be horrifying to his relatively conservative Jewish parents.
Portnoy finds himself attracted to women who are more and more inappropriate over the course of the novel, according to the terms of his Jewish culture. The first girls he finds himself intensely attracted to are the young, blonde gentiles he sees ice-skating at a local lake. He tries to sleep with an Italian-American woman in one of his first sexual encounters, and notes a picture of Jesus displayed prominently in the home. Later on, he takes up with a woman he calls 'The Pumpkin' because of her physical shape and a very perverse, uneducated woman he calls 'The Monkey.' The fact that Portnoy dehumanizes these women with appellations shows his desire to distance himself from what he really desires. However, despite the fact he finds himself attracted to gentiles, he also engages in self-defeating behaviors, such as demanding that 'The Pumpkin' convert if their relationship is to become more serious. Portnoy's feelings about his sexuality, just like his feelings about his Jewishness are ambivalent, and this ambivalence creates self-subverting behavior.
Because his desires cannot be expressed as part of his public persona as a socially-conscious lawyer they grow darker and darker as the tale unfurls. When he has a sexual encounter -- arranged by his own engineering -- between an Italian prostitute, his lover, and himself, he vomits afterwards, because he is so revolted, and thinks of his mother. "My kishkas," he says, recalling his Jewishness even in his attempt to seem like a suave and sophisticated gentile (Roth 138). And he never fully reconciles these impulses -- when he goes to Israel, which is at first a very positive experience for Portnoy, he is unable to perform with a very strong-willed 'sabra' woman whom he finds intimidating. He tries to rape her (unsuccessfully) as a result of his anger at the strength she represents. "Impotent in Israel," he says, once again defeated by the image of his mother (Roth 268).
Portnoy admits that he has had more conventional relationships with women as an adult: 'nice' women with apartments and cats. "Because this city, as we know, is alive with girls wholly unlike Miss Mary Jane Reed [the Monkey], promising, unbroken, uncontaminated young women, healthy, in fact as milkmaids" (Roth 215). But these pale in comparison to the excitement he feels in dating women like 'The Monkey' who wears outrageously inappropriate clothing and seems to have no sense of propriety in terms of what she talks about, even when he takes her to a prestigious dinner at the mayor's. He judges her for being what he wants her to be: "And this...is how she is going with me to the Mayor's? Looking like a stripper?" (Roth 209). On one hand, he wants the Monkey because of her coarseness, but on the other hand he judges her constantly in a manner which he knows is unfair. The Monkey symbolizes the tension within Portnoy, of the higher self he wishes to project to the world and the lower self that embodies all of his sensual desires.
Although Portnoy's 'complaint' is framed as a very specifically Jewish malady in Roth, in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, this sense of decadence of the professional and upper classes of New York City is seen as epidemic. The glittering, wealthy exterior of Manhattan stands in sharp contrast to the poverty and steaminess to which many of the main characters are attracted to yet repelled by. The plot of Bonfire of the Vanities involves the story of a wealthy man named Sherman McCoy who is involved in a hit-and-run accident with his mistress. The incident is cynically exploited by the media and political leaders to the point where the truth of the actual incident and the larger truth of the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' of America is concealed. Just as Portnoy's altruism conceals a desire to wallow in the underbelly of American society, McCoy's place in the upper echelons of the Manhattan class system is infected by the darkness of the underclass because of his sexual desires.
The fact that McCoy is a wealthy Wall Street tycoon makes him fodder for a press that wants to use him as a symbol of everything that is wrong in terms of class inequalities in America. Sexual desire becomes his undoing, but in contrast to Portnoy, McCoy's humiliation takes place upon the public stage. Because the hit-and-run occurred when he was driving with his lover, he concealed the incident. No matter how powerful a man may be, he is not above sexual folly. Desire brings down McCoy's reputation and his career, and it also exposes the class tensions of New York City.
At the beginning of the novel, McCoy is thoroughly bored with his 'good' attractive wife, despite the fact that she fulfills all of the expected attributes of beauty that a successful 'trophy wife' of a Wall Street tycoon should have. "Still a very good-looking woman, my wife ... with her fine thin features, her big clear blue eyes, her rich brown hair ... But she's forty years old! ... No getting around it ... Today good-looking ... Tomorrow they'll be talking about what a handsome woman she is ... Not her fault ... But not mine, either!" (Wolf 11). In contrast, his lover Maria is young and exciting. She is Southern, obviously after him for his money and position, but he does not care, and like the Monkey is she is anti-intellectual. "Sherman, tell me the honest truth, if you don't know who Christopher Marlowe is, does that make you stupid?" (Wolf 77). McCoy is Yale-educated and from a fine family, but like Portnoy he thrills in dating a woman who might be considered 'lower class,' a Southern belle who makes all of her statements seem like questions and is vacuous. Dating her makes him feel better about himself -- and worse at the same time, given the immorality he knows in which he is engaged.
There is an acute discrepancy between the idealized image of financial greatness, morality, and fatherly tenderness that McCoy projects to the world and what he really wants from a woman. "So long as Sherman held his daughter's hand in his and walked her to her bus stop, he felt himself a part of God's grace" (Wolf 48). Otherwise, when he engages in sexual behaviors, he is filled with a sense of guilt or longing. When Maria runs over the young, black man accidentally, McCoy's willingness to take the blame is an expression of his sexual guilt. He feels guilty that he is dating a woman he would never be proud to be seen with in public and guilty about the fact that he is betraying his wife and young daughter, despite the fact that both of them trust him completely and utterly. Attempting to 'make things right' simply makes things worse, and ultimately Maria is dragged through the press and humiliated just as much as McCoy. And of course, McCoy thinks little of the young man who is also hurt by the actions of his lover, because he is so fixated upon his own dramas. The needs and concerns of others do not matter as he desperately tries to merge the man he actually is with the man whom he would like to seem in the eyes of society.
The novel The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao is also about thwarted sexual desire, although it is not confined to a…