THE HUMAN STAIN by Philip Roth


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Roth's extraordinary recent productivity (the prizewinning Sabbath's Theater, 1995, and American Pastoral, 1997) continues apace with this impressively replete and very moving chronicle of an academic scandal and its impact on both the aging professor at its center and his friend—alter ego novelist Nathan Zuckerman. In the turbulent summer of 1998 (while the country reacts with prurient dismay to the Bill Clinton—Monica Lewinsky mess), Coleman Silk, classics teacher and Dean of Faculty at New England's Athena College, innocently uses the word “spook” (correctly, as it happens) in class, and is immediately accused of racism. His career and reputation are in ruins, his wife dies as a result of the ensuing emotional trauma, and Silk becomes estranged from his several adult children. Then, his “exploitative” ongoing affair with Faunia Farley, a passive cleaning woman less than half his age, is discovered. Zuckerman, in whom Coleman has confided, befriends him, hears him out—then, following the last of the story’s several climaxes, sedulously “reconstructs” his beleaguered friend's history (“I am forced to imagine. It happens to be what I do for a living”). There's another secret in Coleman's past—and Zuckerman/Roth teases it out and explores its consequences in a back-and-forth narrative filled with surprises that strains plausibility severely, while simultaneously involving us deeply with its vividly imagined characters. In addition to Coleman Silk (whose arrogance and secretiveness in no way lessen our respect for him), Roth creates telling and unusually full characterizations of the semiliterate Faunia (both a pathetic victim of circumstance and a formidably strong woman); her angry ex-husband Les, a Vietnam vet crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder; and even Delphine Roux, Coleman's single-minded feminist colleague, and his most dedicated enemy. And in the long elegiac final scene, Zuckerman contrives a resolution that may confer forgiveness on them all. A marvel of imaginative empathy, generosity, and tact. Roth's late maturity looks more and more like his golden age.

Pub Date: May 10th, 2000
ISBN: 0-618-05945-8
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2000


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