David's Reviews > The Human Stain

The Human Stain by Philip Roth
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Someone, somewhere coined a phrase which I shall now steal, without remembering where I picked it up and thus being unable to give proper credit: this is a novel about the "Unbearable Dudeliness of Being." Philip Roth is a Very Serious Author which is why he can get away with writing novels that linger over descriptive details like "her tongue glazed with his come" and win a Pen/Faulkner Award, while a lesser writer would be relegated to the porn-masquerading-as-plot bins with John Norman and Laurell K. Hamilton.

Okay, I am being a little unfair. The Human Stain is certainly not porn masquerading as plot. It's got some fine (lengthy, long-winded, self-indulgent, look-at-me-I-am-a-Very-Serious-Author-with-Very-Serious-Things-to-say-about-the-human-condition) writing, and Roth digs deep, very deeply, into the lives and heads of each character in the book. Ironically, the one character who remains mostly unknown to us is Nathan Zuckerman, the (fictional) author and third person narrator whom Roth uses as an authorial device to tell the story of Coleman Silk, a classics professor at a small, prestigious little liberal arts college in the Northeast. Coleman has a secret that he has been hiding his entire life, and it is revealed only at the end of his life, after a brief, disastrous affair with Faunia Farley, an uneducated janitor who works at his college. Zuckerman, who had a great big man-crush on Coleman, becomes determined to write his story after he dies, and so he does: The Human Stain. It's meta, get it? By the end, it's not clear how much of what is written about Coleman Silk's childhood or the inner monologue inside Faunia Farley's head when she is by herself is meant to be omniscient narrator Roth writing about his characters, or third-person narrator Nathan Zuckerman writing about "real" people and attributing thoughts and actions and dialog to them after they are dead.

The Human Stain takes place in 1998, during the impeachment trial of President Clinton, which has nothing to do with the plot but affords Roth the opportunity to include discussions of Presidential blow jobs and a completely irrelevant conversation overheard by Coleman Silk which goes on for four pages about why Monica Lewinsky should have taken it up the ass. I was both impressed by Roth's ability to write this in a way that made it seem to just flow with the rest of the story, like a perfectly natural conversation dropped into the ongoing events to make it topical, and appalled at the complete irrelevancy of a four page overheard dialog about anal sex having nothing to do with the story. Well, I'm sure professors of literature who are Philip Roth fans would tell me it had everything to do with the story and I just didn't appreciate the hidden meaning. Nah, I got the hidden meaning - Roth likes to write about sex, specifically, about older men doing younger women in various orifices. You may write long, lovely, literary passages, Mr. Roth, but you're still a perv.

Now to be fair (I'm trying, really!), the sex scenes are actually pretty sparse and brief. Most of the book is about Coleman Silk and how he spent his entire life "passing" as a white man, how unjust accusations of racism triggered the end of his academic career (mostly by his own doing, as it is implied that the entire false construct he has built up, having never even told his own wife and children that he's black, collapses in his mind when he is accused of being a racist), and how he takes up with a younger woman who's hardened, world-weary, has an abusive psycho Vietnam Vet ex-husband and two dead children in an urn under her bed, and something about a hot younger professor in his department who hates Coleman Silk but also wants him to do her, probably in the ass. No, really, Mr. Roth, you're a perv.

There are a lot of things Roth is commenting on here: race, class, sex, academia, false consciences, inner selves and layers of being that we keep hidden from others, the intersection of desire and loathing, self-loathing and self-denial... ah, to hell with it, I'm sure lots of American Lit grad students write fine papers about all the highbrow themes in this novel. It's psychologically deep and artfully written, but you can still feel the gravitational pull of Roth's dudeliocentric ego exerting itself on every page.


I turned from the shore, once I was safely there, to look back and see if he was going to follow me into the woods after all and to do me in before I ever got my chance to enter Coleman Silk's boyhood house and, like Steena Palsson before me, to sit with his East Orange family as the white guest at Sunday dinner. Just facing him, I could feel the terror of the auger -- even with him already seated back on his bucket: the icy white of the lake encircling a tiny spot that was a man, the only human marker in all of nature, like the X of an illiterate's signature on a sheet of paper. There it was, if not the whole story, the whole picture. Only rarely, at the end of our century, does life offer up a vision as pure and peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that's constantly turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.


There are a lot of passages like that. The dialog is similarly precise, detailed, and expansive. There were parts of this book where Roth almost had me: "Damn, dude can write!" And then there'd be another dudely disquisition on the dudeliness of being (a whole chapter on Faunia's ex-husband Les Farley trying to cope with his PTSD and raging hatred for Asians, but really, anyone who isn't him, and also himself) which in itself was also interesting but Roth can hardly go a whole chapter without mentioning someone's dick being sucked. Just remember, semen is totally the stuff of Pen/Faulkner Awards if it's written by a dude as dudely as Philip Roth.

My enjoyment of this book would only merit 2 stars (I've certainly rated books 2 stars that I enjoyed no more than this one) but given writing like the aforementioned passage, which I cannot help admiring, I'm bumping my rating up to 3 stars. Literary authors can write nice, I just find so few who combine writing talent with storytelling of the kind I like. Also, I'd rather not feel like I am witnessing the author masturbating.
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