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.