This is my review of The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Original and astonishingly articulate, “The Human Stain” forms the third part of Philip Roth’s trilogy of novels exploring major social issues in late 1990s USA.
After a distinguished career as a former Dean and Classics Professor who has chosen to return to classroom teaching at small-town New England Athena College, Coleman Silk falls foul of “political correctness” by describing two black students as “spooks”. He is referring to their ghost-like nature in appearing on his class register but never in person: the powers that be construe his words as racist. The irony of this situation, and the reasons for Coleman’s furious reaction to the charge are gradually revealed.
Proud and impulsive, he storms out rather than wait for the outrage to die down. His anger and isolation only fed by the sudden death of his wife Iris, which he attributes to stress over his treatment, he further scandalises the community by taking up with Faunia, an uneducated college cleaner and farm worker less than half his age. Their common bond seems to be that she too has been society’s victim, although in a very different way.
The narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s favourite alter ego who reappears in other novels, but Roth makes the maximum play with artistic licence, digressing into events and inner thoughts (as when Faunia thinks about why she likes crows so much) which Zuckerman could not possibly know. The device for getting round this is that Silk’s story inspires Zuckerman to go on to research, expand upon and dramatise his whole life in the “The Human Stain” which we are actually reading. This goes far beyond Coleman’s emotional demand that, as a professional writer, Zuckerman should write about the monumental injustice which has been done to him.
Roth makes much of the parallel between Coleman’s plight and what he sees as the inordinate and hypocritical uproar over Clinton’s dalliance with Monika Lewinsky. An additional apparent inspiration was the experience of an academic friend, Melvin Tumin, who was subject to a “witch hunt” but was ultimately found blameless for the alleged use of racial language as regards two African American students. The plot is also a vehicle for exploring practical difficulties of gaining racial equality. An ambitious individual bent on achieving “The American Dream” may choose the controversial path of “passing himself off” as white, but this may be at the price of cutting oneself off from blood relatives and denying one’s children a sense of their true heritage.
Meanwhile, Faunia’s violent, vengeful stalker ex-husband Les Farley serves to reveal the problem of the traumatised veterans unable to adapt to “normal” life after the living nightmare of Vietnam. Roth shows his skill in arousing a sense of sympathy for almost everyone in this book, even the French academic troublemaker Delphine Roux who pays lip service to what Coleman (and probably Roth) sees as phoney literary “deconstructionism”. Perhaps, though, there is just a tinge of the flaw of subjective anti-feminism and academic conservatism in Roth when it comes to writing about Delphine.
Roth’s writing sometimes reaches such a peak of broiling intensity, that one has to take a pause to recover, and his tendency to examine causes and motives from every conceivable angle sometimes seems obsessive. Some of the quieter passages have the deepest impact, as when Zuckermann, who has taken refuge from the “entanglement” with his “turbulent” past life in a two-room cabin by a small pond with a patient blue heron in the Madamska mountains, meditates on how hard it has proved to adapt to “radical seclusion” and how easily he has made a friend of Coleman and let “all the world’s malice” come back “rushing in”.
Sadly, watching the film of the book years ago deterred me from reading it, because I could not get over the problem that actor Anthony Hopkins did not “look the part” of Coleman Silk. Having at last read it for a book group, I shall now make a point of going back to the first two parts of the trilogy involving a different set of characters and dilemmas: American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998).