Book reviews

The Human Stain by Philip Roth


 

Like Oedipus, the man who ignored the Sphinx’s warning that he would kill his father and marry his mother, The Human Stain’s Coleman Silk also thinks he can outwit the gods.  For fifty years he has played a successful game, but the ancestors have not forgotten how Coleman turned his back on them.  Now it’s payback time.

When we first meet classics professor Coleman Silk, his faultless reputation at Athena College is falling apart.  He is accused of uttering a racial slur.  His response? Indignation.  Coleman has been highly regarded for decades.  He has succeeded not only as an academic, but at whatever he has set his mind to. 

Orphaned as a teen and without siblings, Coleman crafted a narrative to suit him.  Although he married within his Jewish faith, he has otherwise left behind his Jewish working-class origins.  Essentially he sold his birthright to assure his success. 

As a teen-ager he won boxing tournaments.  What drew him to the sport and why he excelled probably had as much to do with his need to win and subdue adversaries as strength, cunning, or quickness.  He is a man who’s good at locating others’ Achilles heels and using that knowledge to his advantage.  He is a man with a profound need to make his way in the world. 

During his tenure as dean of faculty, his pursuit of excellence and competitive spirit made it easy for him to purge Athena of its fusty faculty.  He brought in women professors and professors of color.  He replaced those who hadn’t published in decades with a more vibrant, academic set.  He didn’t ask for permission.  He was in a position to enact change and he did.  He was admired and also feared.  His ruthlessness and single-mindedness allowed him to transform Athena from an academic backwater to a vibrant institution.

Then he stepped down from dean and became just another academic teaching survey courses.  When Coleman refers to two absentee students as a couple of spooks, it’s the wrong move.  The students are African Americans and take offense.  Lawyers are called in.  Things escalate.  Coleman resigns.  A long unraveling of Coleman’s life begins, which will culminate in the uncovering of the secret self Coleman has kept hidden for nearly fifty years.

Faunia Farley is a thirty-four year illiterate who milks cows.  She also mops floors and empties waste baskets as part of Athena College’s janitorial crew.  She is being stalked by her abusive ex-husband, a Vietnam Vet with PTSD.  She is the mother to two young children who died when an unattended space heater caught fire.  As a child she was sexually abused by her wealthy stepfather.  When she told her mother what was going on, she was kicked out of the house.  She is also Coleman’s improbable love interest.  

Delphine Roux is a brilliant beautiful young French-educated elitist academic blue blood.  She left France to get out from her family’s shadow.   Apparently she was as desperate as Coleman to make it on her own and be beholden to nobody.  She is furious because she hasn’t found the life she sought in America: a scintillating academic career and a man. 

Currently Delphine is Coleman’s boss.  She could have nipped the spooks incident in the bud but let it go viral because she is pissed at him and thinks he is too full of himself.  Secretly, of course, she is in love with him.  When Delphine finds out about Coleman’s affair with Faunia she starts to circulate word of it in a nasty way, determined to destroy what’s left of Coleman’s reputation. 

Stain is narrated by one Nathan Zuckerman, novelist.  Zuckerman appears in several other Roth novels, too.  I’m not sure what sort of role he has there, but here he functions as story guide and detective.  He uncovers Stain’s characters’ hidden lives and writes of them.  Occasionally he exercises his imagination to fill gaps in his characters’ stories.  Sometimes he mingles in the narrative. 

Stain delivers with surprise and irony that deepens as one reads.  Like John Updike’s Rabbit series, Richard Ford’s Sportwriter trilogy, and Richard York’s Revolutionary Road, Stain presents a critique on contemporary American life.  Stain is a great read about fascinating people, a cautionary tale about the costs of forging false identities, and an indictment of an America that forces people to step behind painted versions of themselves in order to become who they were meant to become.

 

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