It Happened One Night

Ian McEwan first tackled the problem of virginity and how to lose it in “Homemade,” the first story in his brilliant first book, First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975. When the adolescent narrator is introduced to the “simple, inexpensive” pleasure of masturbation, he wonders “if I could not dedicate my whole life to this glorious sensation—and I suppose looking back now that in many respects I have.” That was more than thirty years ago and in one way or another McEwan has kept his word.

McEwan was still one of Malcolm Bradbury’s creative writing students at the University of East Anglia when “Homemade” was published in the New American Review, and he could not have chosen a more appropriate place for his American debut. Four years earlier the magazine had introduced Portnoy to the world, and McEwan, like a host of other young writers, was greatly indebted to Philip Roth for opening the gate to what had previously been forbidden territory: that promised land where anything goes, given the necessary talent and confidence, where talking dirty and writing well are not mutually exclusive, and it is possible to make high art even out of shamelessness.

In sensibility, however, Roth and McEwan are very different. Roth is urgent and immediate, all voice and presence, and Portnoy’s Complaint is exactly what it says on the cover—one long outraged tirade against the injustice of lust, the relentlessness of it, and the endless trouble it brings. Roth writes in such a way as to make you think Portnoy is right there in the room with you, and, unlike the zipper-mouthed Freudian behind the couch, you and he are face-to-face. It is an unnerving experience but an ambiguous one, and part of Roth’s genius is in the ambiguity: without ever quite mentioning it or soft-pedaling the man’s rage, Roth makes it clear that Portnoy himself is secretly appalled by his own behavior; he is less outraged by his appetites than by his virtue. He can’t help being a good boy however much he wants to be bad.

Being bad was never a problem for the young McEwan and his prose was cooler, more beady-eyed than Roth’s, even back then when he was starting out and relishing his flair for talking dirty with style. This, for example, from “Homemade,” is one of several rococo variations on the schoolboy fantasy of losing his virginity to anyone—literally, anyone—willing to take it:

Lulu Slim—but how my mind reels—whose physical enormity was matched only by the enormity of her reputed sexual appetite and prowess, her grossness only by the grossness she inspired, the legend only by the reality. Zulu Lulu! who—so fame had it—had laid a trail across north London of frothing idiots, a desolation of broken minds and pricks spanning Shepherds Bush to Holloway, Ongar to Islington. Lulu! Her wobbling girth and laughing piggy’s eyes, blooming thighs and dimpled finger-joints, this heaving, steaming …

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Letters

The Birth of Portnoy October 25, 2007

Correction August 16, 2007