Seems like Everybody's talkin' about Philip Roth. I admit I haven't read a lot of Roth -- I guess he's not obscure enough for me -- but I do like Portnoy's Complaint, even if I don't exactly enjoy spending that much time with a character like Alex Portnoy. Roth came along at a time when Jews had finally crawled back into American pop culture after years of being written out. Look at movies from the '30s or '40s and you'll hardly ever see a Jewish character, and when one does appear, like Felix Bressart's character in Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, he's not explicitly referred to as a Jew. There was an idea among entertainment-industry executives, many of whom were of course Jewish, that no one wanted to see Jewish characters; hence slogans like "Write Jewish, cast Italian," whereby Jewish stereotypes would be disguised as some other ethnic group. When Jews did appear, as in the movie Gentleman's Agreement or Arthur Laurents's play Home of the Brave (the movie version of which substituted a black character for the Jewish lead character), they tended to be given no particular cultural identity, with the odd result that non-Jewish characters would sometimes act more stereotypically Jewish than the Jewish characters. (A novel like What Makes Sammy Run? was an exception, and a still-controversial one.)
Explicitly Jewish characters, culturally Jewish characters, started to appear more often in the '50s and early '60s, and by the time Philip Roth came along, there was a fairly well-established type of mainstream Jewish humor. It might be about growing up in the city, like Sam Levenson's comedy routines and books; it might be about the modern suburbs, like Allan Sherman's three best-selling record albums; it might be something like Fiddler on the Roof, but it was uniformly pleasant and likable, portraying Jewish culture as very mainstream, very easily assimilated into the majority culture. The theme of Fiddler is that the insularity of Jewish tradition -- the things that make it seem alien to the American majority culture -- break down or change, and Tevye and his family will come to America and fit in.
Portnoy's Complaint said, wait a minute. It portrayed Jewishness as insular, alienating, making Portnoy feel at once inferior and superior to the majority culture. Portnoy is always emphasizing the extent to which Jews are set apart, portraying dietary laws, for example (which were almost never mentioned in '50s or '60s Jewish stories) as a way of simultaneously torturing ourselves and making ourselves feel superior to the goyim. If Fiddler on the Roof says that the Jews aren't so different after all, Portnoy's Complaint says that Jews are very different, and not as completely assimilated as we like to think. (This is different from What Makes Sammy Run? which centred around a negative Jewish stereotype but portrayed him as the rotten apple in the barrel, not as a representative of Jewish culture.) In that sense, it could be considered one of the progenitors of the "multicultural" American and Canadian literature of the past 30 years or so, where the basic theme is the ambiguous attitude of, and relationship of, a minority toward the majority culture. When I read Portnoy I sort of long for the assimilationist Jewish popular culture that came before it; I kind of miss Allan Sherman assuring America that Jews just go to camp and sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" like everyone else. But I also know, as a Jew, that there's some truth in Roth's emphasis on cultural differences, and I have to say that if someone was going to bring it out in the open, I'm glad it was someone who could write it funny, instead of preachy.
If you've read this far, I also want to mention the much-maligned movie version of Portnoy's Complaint. The maligning, by the way, is deserved; the script isn't much, the direction is worse, and some of the casting is just wrong, notably Richard Benjamin as Portnoy (Gene Wilder was considered, and he'd have been much better) and Jill Clayburgh as an Israeli. What makes the film kind of fascinating to watch, in spite of all that, is that it was made in 1972 but looks like it could have been made in the late '50s. Ernest Lehman, the writer-producer-director, was an Establishment Hollywood figure, having written such films as North by Northwest, The Sound of Music, and Hello, Dolly! (which he also produced). But other Establishment Hollywood figures tried to get "hip" in the '70s. Lehman, directing for the first and last time, made a movie with the look, style and feel of the movies that were being made during the decline of the Studio System: unnaturally bright lighting, careful compositions, obvious studio interiors, back projection. There's one scene where Portnoy and The Monkey (Karen Black) are in a car; the car is barely moving, the road behind them is obviously back-projected; shadows are projected onto them at predictable intervals; the camera stares straight at them and doesn't move; the lighting is too bright and uniform to suggest a real car trip. In other words, it looks in every way like a bad studio film from the late '50s or early '60s -- so that when Karen Black says "Oh, fuck the radio," you can hardly believe it; how can they be using that word in what is so clearly an Old Hollywood production? I'm not a great fan of the '70s "Golden Age of Cinema," which I tend to think of as the golden age of inaudible dialogue, bad film stock, and trendy downbeat endings. But if you need anything to remind you why the Old Hollywood style was no longer working and had to be replaced with something, have a look at Portnoy, the movie. It's not on DVD yet, though, and I doubt it's a high priority for Warners, which owns it.