Let's get this straight right off the bat. I have a pretty high threshold for obscenity within art, but Portnoy's Complaint definitely pushed it. Portnoy is a deplorable character, and I felt sick to my stomach several times. But with a compassion I wish I could extend to flesh-and-blood human beings, I worked hard to understand him both despite and because of his obscenity. I feel like most of it is Roth playing with us, asking us indirectly how far we will go to understand someone like Portnoy--just how patient and tolerant are we? At the same time, I don't think there's just one way to pass Roth's test.
Here are my initial impressions. For all the Oedipal smokescreen Portnoy can put up, a lot of his worry stems from being simultaneously late to the party and left behind--kind of like when everyone starts singing a song and one person jumps in, only to realize that everyone has switched to a new song without any warning. This impression leads me to find a little Portnoy (maybe more than I would like to admit) in myself. We all have a little Portnoy in us. This is what makes Roth so perceptive, and, while he may go about it in a less than orthodox way, Portnoy's Complaint is both an indictment and an arm of fellowship to that dark, selfish anxiety.