‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ Revisited

Steve Oskie. Courtesy of Steve Oskie

Steve Oskie

Something wonderful happened in my writing life in my 50th year of striving: A publisher accepted my novel for publication.

I sent “Glassman” to more than 250 agents and publishers over 13 months with sobering results.  At the risk of minimizing traumatic brain injuries, each of those rejections felt like a separate blow to the head until David Ross of Open Books invited me to a Zoom meeting to discuss the possibility of moving forward.

Little did I know that Ross was already leaning toward publishing “Glassman” as long as I didn’t sound like a jerk when we met (although he used a more colorful epithet when he commented to me). We’re both pushing 70, and I completely agreed with him when he said we’re too old to be dealing with jerks. If life has taught me anything, it’s that I can be a jerk at the slightest provocation, but I’ve been on my best behavior with Ross from the beginning.

As it turned out, two rejections in particular kept me going while I was hoping upon hope for a publisher. An agent who prohibited me from using his name in promoting “Glassman” said the following: “I’ve had a chance to spend some time with your fierce, energetic novel, and I was blown away by the power in these pages. You’ve written a novel that captures what it means to be human and how we move through our lives. These pages are visceral and immediate; they shake the reader and force us to pay attention.”

Next, I heard from Dan Pope, an award-winning novelist and the founder of Roundabout Press. “Steve,” he wrote. “Excellent opening. You had me laughing out loud more than once. Reminded me of the same joy I felt reading Portnoy for the first time.”

I regarded the Portnoy comparison as a compliment of the highest order, primarily because of my admiration for Philip Roth; the guilt I felt writing about my family (even though I’m less cavalier about it than Roth was); and, of course, my experience with the Jewish Mother Syndrome, which was much milder than the one portrayed in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” My mother had her crazy moments, but – brace yourself – she never prohibited me from flushing the toilet so that she could inspect my bowel movements.

Part of the reason that I appreciated Pope’s comment as much as I did was that producing laughter from a rather exaggerated mother-son relationship was exactly the effect I was going for. Later in the novel, I invoked Roth’s name again:

Once I refused to become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant – the three professions that seemed to epitomize the Nice Jewish Boy syndrome that I desperately wanted to avoid – I caused myself to live near the poverty level for a period of many years. But until recently I was glad to make the tradeoff. My desire to behave defiantly preceded my reading Portnoy’s Complaint, but when I encountered the episode in which Ronald Nimkin dutifully pinned a note to his shirt sleeve prior to hanging himself, my point of view hardened into the counter-productive thing that it was. In Roth’s novel, Nimkin was so blindly obedient that he posthumously reminded his mother to bring her “mah-jongg rules to the game.” Finding that sort of conformity to be toxic, I became someone who abhorred the seeking of wealth. But now, at the same time, I was getting tired of counting pennies, stretching every dollar, and sweating out unforeseen expenses. I asked myself, did it really make me a sellout if I liked having money in my pocket, enjoying the ocean breeze, and looking out the window to see a new car parked outside? It had never been a matter of worrying about where my next meal was coming from – particularly since I had worked in a series of restaurants – or of putting food on the table for anyone but myself, but my financial situation had always been uncomfortable. I could rest a little easier now that my paychecks were bigger, but unlike Duddy Kravitz in his unscrupulous rise to the top, I was conflicted about it for a long time.  

“Glassman is set for release on May 23. Here is a link to my website: steveoskie.com/ and another one to Open Books: open-bks.com/library/moderns/glassman/order.html

If you end up reading my novel, I welcome your thoughts.

Steve Oskie’s plays have been produced in New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. He is the author of “Mean Thoughts,” a semifinalist for the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, and is the ghostwriter of Jerry Blavat’s autobiography, “You Only Rock Once,” which was published in hardcover, paperback and audiobook editions. His short fiction has appeared in Textures, Pierien Spring and other literary journals.


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