2016-06-30
The Human Stain
By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 361 pp.

As the author of "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint," Philip Roth spent a decade fighting accusations of misogyny, Jewish self-loathing, and literary matricide, not to mention Satanism, body odor, appreciating Andrew Wyeth, eating Spam, and all manner of other offenses to good taste. It was the price he paid for his art.

For the next 15 years, as general editor of the Other Europe, Penguin's series of neglected Eastern European authors, Roth helped bring into print the works of men and women whose creative impulses had carried even steeper costs. So Roth, more than most American authors, seems fully to feel the weight of the lesson that political exigencies must never be permitted to stifle art, that the mind and its creative spirit are the truest friends of freedom. The ground of his last two novels is strewn with the victims of political extremism, whether Iron Rinn's Stalinism in "I Married a Communist" or Merry Levov's militant anti-Americanism in "American Pastoral."

In "The Human Stain," the latest dispatch from Roth's first-person alter ego, the aged, wistful, prostateless Nathan Zuckerman, the dangers of know-nothingism are back. Coleman Silk, a Jewish classics professor at Athena College, is run into early retirement by craven academics after a scandal that should never have been. One fine New England day, Silk wonders aloud to his class if two chronically absent students are even real: "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?" When it turns out that the two truants are black, the sensitivity police swoop, willfully misprising Silk's word, refusing to listen to reason.

Rather than submit to a Maoist public shaming, Silk retires from academe and takes to his cottage. When his wife dies of stress, Silk runs to Nathan Zuckerman, novelist and neighbor, to ask Zuckerman to somehow right these wrongs. "These people murdered Iris!" Silk cries. "They meant to kill me and they got her instead." Silk has written a nonfiction memoir, called "Spooks" but knows that it isn't very good; and besides, he's a known racist, his credibility is shot.

But if the great Nathan Zuckerman were to bring his powerful imagination to bear on a story so tragic, so juicy that it needs no fictionalization anyway, well, then ... Zuckerman doth protest, but circumstances conspire to put his pen to paper. After Silk and his 34-year-old, illiterate mistress, Faunia Farley, a janitor at the college that has deposed Silk, are killed in an automobile accident, Zuckerman attends Silk's funeral and interment. As people drift away from the cemetery, an elderly woman remains by the graveside. "She could have been on a street corner, waiting patiently for the next bus. It was the way she was holding her handbag primly in front of her that made me think of someone who was already prepared to pay her fare, and then to be carried off to wherever she was going." She is black, and he assumes she is the wife of Herb Keble, a black professor who has just delivered a moving eulogy posthumously exonerating Silk of the charge of racism. Zuckerman offers her a kind word: "I believe your husband changed everything today," he says.

Undone by the day's events, she doesn't answer, just stares at Zuckerman. And as he stares back at her high-yellow face, "no darker than a Greek's or a Moroccan's," he sees something, a striking resemblance to Silk's daughter Lisa. And then he moves beyond seeing into knowing, and as he realizes that this old, black woman is Lisa's aunt, Coleman Silk's sister, the irony of Coleman's life and ignominious death crashes upon Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman and Ernestine Coles begin to talk of her brother's life, he takes notes, and so we have this book.

It is a superb book, but not for the reasons Roth wants it to be. He sells it as a political parable. The title's human stain, and the exposition of the first five pages, remind us that the book's action takes place in Impeachment Summer, 1998. Not just on Monica's dress, the stain is on us all, original sin, a fact that should make us more empathic, not less. Yet that summer, America's "piety binge ... revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony."

Roth's narrative is unsparing in its defense of the private sphere and is a worthy reminder that private lives are best left that way; his repudiation of self-righteousness as a mode of public carriage should leave us all a little ashamed of much that we have done, or at least suborned.

Yet most Americans did not share the sexual prudery that so offends Roth. Most of us did not want to see the president impeached; Bill Clinton did not lack advocates then or now. In condemning moralism, Roth almost becomes what he beholds, preaching to a choir that, from all that we can tell, agrees with his tolerant perspective. And as to political orthodoxy and academic speech codes, those other prey in Roth's deadly gunsights--didn't David Mamet already attack those beasts, pithily expertly, in "Oleanna"? For that matter, Roth wrote the definitive anti-witchhunting fiction, "I Married a Communist," a novel that is for its genre what "The Crucible" is to American drama.

The salient tragedy of "The Human Stain" is not Coleman Silk's imprisonment in the stocks of public opinion, a fate that would not have befallen him had he never rejected his mother, siblings, and race. (Of course, had he remained a black man after mid-century, would he have become a tenured classicist at a baby-ivy college? A fair question.) Rather, the import of "The Human Stain" lies in its humane, beautiful dissection of a man who decides that freedom from race is worth total estrangement from a loving family and a literate, educated, upwardly mobile heritage that most Americans of all races would be happy to crow about.

"The act"--telling his mother that he is marrying a white woman who must not know his race, then disappearing from his family--"was committed in 1953 by an audacious young man in Greenwich Village, by a specific person in a specific place at a specific time, but now he will be on the other side forever." The other side is not whiteness, which would be the equivalent of racelessness, but Judaism. In the Village, in 1953, perhaps even more than today, that was a very happy trade, for "this was a moment when Jewish self-infatuation was at a post-war pinnacle among the Washington Square intellectual avant-garde, when the aggrandizing appetite driving their Jewish mental audacity was beginning to look to be uncontrollable," and that appetite was being validated and rewarded by publishers, the academy (finally), and women, Gentile and Jewish alike. Lose one's family, but win the world. Coleman Silk does not escape Ralph Ellison's black invisibility only to acquire Seymour "Swede" Levov's WASP blandness. He becomes a Jew, marries a Jewess with hair as kinky as his own, and has Jewish children, one of whom intones the Kaddish at his funeral.

Back in East Orange, New Jersey, Coleman's mother never recovers. Senile on her deathbed, she tells a nurse that she must get home to take care of a sick baby: Coleman. Like everything Ernestine says, the anecdote is profoundly moving. Thus the great surprise of Philip Roth's new novel. After 40 years and half as many books, Roth has learned to break our hearts. His earlier work is invariably cheeky, smart, and perfectly voiced. His fictions are so readable, with such narrative drive and dead-on verisimilitude, that he is lucky to have kept his hold on critics, who like literature that leaves more unsaid and lurking beneath the surface tension. Roth has always made us sweat, curse, and laugh, but only recently has he made us cry.

Certain lines stopped me in my tracks, made me put the book down and take a minute to recover. Coleman's mother to her traitorous son: "You tell me the only way I can ever touch my grandchildren is for you to hire me to come over as Mrs. Brown to baby-sit and put them to bed, I'll do it. Tell me to come over as Mrs. Brown to clean your house, I'll do that." Or even a brief description of a German soldier during World War II, walking home alone: "He had a leave, and the only way he knew to get back to Germany was to follow the railroad tracks east." It's the kind of simple effect that first appeared in "American Pastoral", and it sounds nothing like the angry young man of the early novels.

Time was, Philip Roth spent his bile on fellow Jews who refused to get out of Jersey, away from their in-ground pools and four-doors. Now, it's the Jews straying too far that makes Roth shake his head sadly. It's Ira Ringold become the Communist Iron Rinn, or Swede Levov marrying Miss New Jersey and moving to the country. Most of all, it's Coleman Silk, also a Jew, in his way, but one who strayed way too far to get there. From a novel that will be woefully misinterpreted as political, it is the very private grief of a family that will stay with me. It's a mother, a brother, and a sister who never could stop loving their boy, long after he stopped being theirs.

more from beliefnet and our partners