The Human Stain: American Trilogy (3) - book cover
  • Publisher : Vintage International
  • Published : 08 May 2001
  • Pages : 361
  • ISBN-10 : 0375726349
  • ISBN-13 : 9780375726347
  • Language : English

The Human Stain: American Trilogy (3)

It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished even his most virulent accuser.

Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk's secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled. And to understand also how Silk's astonishing private history is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, "magnificently" interwoven with "the larger public history of modern America."

Editorial Reviews

?Perhaps the best writing of [Roth?s] long career?. [The Human Stain] is a modern tragedy. Chicago Sun-Times

Readers Top Reviews

I had been very impressed with American Pastoral, with Roth's style of prose and his insight into his characters. For the first third of The Human Stain I thought similarly, but as the book progressed, and the story didn't in any depth, I eventually grew weary of the world view and the over-writing, and skimmed to the end. The mystery of the novel is what had kept me flicking through pages to find out what happened - a very un-politically correct, interesting consideration of race and society. That was well done, although left hanging a bit unsatisfactorily. It was Roth's depressed view of life that I didn't need to read anymore: the idea that every human is stained and there's no remedy for this. Essentially he's spending an entire novel to rewrite the simple truth of 'sin' in complicated sentences and a convoluted plot; yet in his view of the world there is not a glimpse of redemption. His plotting relies heavily on coincidence and daft character behaviour at crucial times, and his style of writing, while at times brilliant, just becomes unnecessary. Roth will write an incredibly crafted sentence which says something fairly profound; then he'll rewrite it in the next sentence, elegantly and with a fresh assemblage of adjectives or metaphors; then he'll try and outdo himself in the third sentence, saying exactly the same thing he's said twice before, with extra hammer, or changed emphasis, or ever more profundity. And when you've been reading for hundreds of pages and you've realised that the only thing he's saying in all this faux-complexity is that people can't ever escape from the stains in their lives, his powerful style becomes an irritant. A very talented writer, but one who needs to spend some time in the New Testament.
Dana "Dr.D" Richards
Roth tackles the toughest issue of racial inequality from a deep realm that makes you wonder. My coming to this book was from the movie, usually that's not good because it causes preconceived notions of what is the deal, that doesn't happen with Roth because he writes deep. Be prepared for a possible put down the book and think moment, each paragraph...Roth is the best, literally, no pun intended, that I've ever read.
It's a wonderful story of an accomplished scholar and athlete who goes through life as a different race and alienates his family. The prose is dense with some very long sentences that makes it hard to read sometimes. It is also repetitive sometimes, recounting what has been said or written in earlier sections. The author tries to work in Clinton's infidelity, the Vietnam war, and the consequences of PTSD with the protagonist's life which makes the book hard to follow at times. It could have been about 2/3 the length and been better.
w. c. mansonJohn W.
One grows tired of Roth's alter ego Zuckerman and his protagonists invariably with working-class roots in Newark, New Jersey. The unfairly vilified "Classics professor" speaks and comports himself like a profane, if earthy, truck-driver--and it is a real stretch to believe that he would be relentlessly persecuted for uttering one (misinterpreted) word. The novel also seems outdated by its rhetorical opinionating about poor Bill Clinton just having some harmless fun in the Oval Office.
J. Grattan
This amazingly insightful novel, set in 1998, is an unrelenting look at the conflicted American psyche over prurience, purity, and political correctness and the havoc that is wreaked in the mix of those obsessions. 1998 is the year when the American public can't wait to read every anatomical detail of a President's affair with an intern while pretending to be horrified. That is the context of this story about Coleman Silk, a classics professor at Athena College located in the Berkshires, who inadvertently falls victim to these American obsessions. Coleman is an enigmatic fellow who took major social risks in his early years, only to find no escape from the political correctness agenda as he approaches seventy. The story is told by Nathan Zuckerman, aka Philip Roth, who lives near Coleman and becomes friends with him after his being drummed out of the college for a remark he made in a class that was misconstrued as being racially insensitive. It is a charge filled with irony given Coleman's background that is slowly pieced together by Zuckerman in the entirety of the book. In putting his life back together, Coleman begins an affair with a thirty-something female janitor at the college Faunia, who has been battered by life but who has a subtle appeal. Of course, this only adds fuel to the purity fire that has already burned Coleman. A French-born, young female professor and Faunia's ex-husband make every effort to ensure that Coleman pays a high price for his apparent indiscriminate pleasure seeking. The book is really more of a sociological treatise than it is a novel. The characters go on for pages in their reflections and conversations concerning the fault lines in American society and the difficulties in surmounting them. The plot is only a device to substantiate those difficulties. There is a sameness to most of the characters: their personalities are secondary to their thoughts and words. But the words are riveting. It is hard to imagine a book that better captures the destructiveness that can enter lives when it is judged that social mores have been violated regardless of a high degree of hypocrisy lurking behind the standards.

Short Excerpt Teaser

Everyone Knows

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk--who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty--confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.

Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his mail--a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.

The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about Faunia Farley and their secret was the summer, fittingly enough, that Bill Clinton's secret emerged in every last mortifying detail--every last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded by the pungency of the specific data. We hadn't had a season like it since somebody stumbled upon the new Miss America nude in an old issue of Penthouse, pictures of her elegantly posed on her knees and on her back that forced the shamed young woman to relinquish her crown and go on to become a huge pop star. Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a home-run god who was brown, and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism--which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country's security--was succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne (who, in the 1860s, lived not many miles from my door) identified in the incipient country of long ago as "the persecuting spirit"; all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough for Senator Lieberman's ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again. No, if you haven't lived through 1998, you don't know what sanctimony is. The syndicated conservative newspaper columnist William F. Buckley wrote, "When Abelard did it, it was possible to prevent its happening again," insinuating that the president's malfeasance--what Buckley elsewhere called Clinton's "incontinent carnality"--might best be remedied with nothing so bloodless as impeachment but, rather, by the twelfth-century punishment meted out to Canon Abelard by the knife-wielding associates of Abelard's ecclesiastical colleague, Canon Fulbert, for Abelard's secret seduction of and marriage to Fulbert's niece, the virgin Heloise. Unlike Khomeini's fatwa condemning to death Salman Rushdie, Buckley's wistful longing for the corrective retribution of castration carried with it no financial incentive for any prospective perpetrator. It was prompted by a spirit no less exacting than the ayatollah's, however, and in behalf of no less exalted ideals.

It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn't stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn't stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one's children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply cr...