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The Human Stain: A Novel [Hardcover]

Philip Roth
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (144 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 10 2000
It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished his most virulent accuser. Coleman Silk has a secret. But it's not the secret of his affair, at seventy-one, with Faunia Farley, a woman half his age with a savagely wrecked past--a part-time farmhand and a janitor at the college where, until recently, he was the powerful dean of faculty. And it's not the secret of Coleman's alleged racism, which provoked the college witch-hunt that cost him his job and, to his mind, killed his wife. Nor is it the secret of misogyny, despite the best efforts of his ambitious young colleague, Professor Delphine Roux, to expose him as a fiend. Coleman's secret has been kept for fifty years: from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman, who sets out to understand how this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, had fabricated his identity and how that cannily controlled life came unraveled. Set in 1990s America, where conflicting moralities and ideological divisions are made manifest through public denunciation and rituals of purification, The Human Stain concludes Philip Roth's eloquent trilogy of postwar American lives that are as tragically determined by the nation's fate as by the "human stain" that so ineradicably marks human nature. This harrowing, deeply compassionate, and completely absorbing novel is a magnificent successor to his Vietnam-era novel, American Pastoral, and his McCarthy-era novel, I Married a Communist.

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Athena College was snoozing complacently in the Berkshires until Coleman Silk--formerly "Silky Silk," undefeated welterweight pro boxer--strode in and shook the place awake. This faculty dean sacked the deadwood, made lots of hot new hires, including Yale-spawned literary-theory wunderkind Delphine Roux, and pissed off so many people for so many decades that now, in 1998, they've all turned on him. Silk's character assassination is partly owing to what the novel's narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, calls "the Devil of the Little Place--the gossip, the jealousy, the acrimony, the boredom, the lies."

But shocking, intensely dramatized events precipitate Silk's crisis. He remarks of two students who never showed up for class, "Do they exist or are they spooks?" They turn out to be black, and lodge a bogus charge of racism exploited by his enemies. Then, at 71, Viagra catapults Silk into "the perpetual state of emergency that is sexual intoxication," and he ignites an affair with an illiterate janitor, Faunia Farley, 34. She's got a sharp sensibility, "the laugh of a barmaid who keeps a baseball bat at her feet in case of trouble," and a melancholy voluptuousness. "I'm back in the tornado," Silk exults. His campus persecutors burn him for it--and his main betrayer is Delphine Roux.

In a short space, it's tough to convey the gale-force quality of Silk's rants, or the odd effect of Zuckerman's narration, alternately retrospective and torrentially in the moment. The flashbacks to Silk's youth in New Jersey are just as important as his turbulent forced retirement, because it turns out that for his entire adult life, Silk has been covering up the fact that he is a black man. (If this seems implausible, consider that the famous New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard did the same thing.) Young Silk rejects both the racism that bars him from Woolworth's counter and the Negro solidarity of Howard University. "Neither the they of Woolworth's nor the we of Howard" is for Coleman Silk. "Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery--that was the punch to the labonz.... Self-knowledge but concealed. What is as powerful as that?"

Silk's contradictions power a great Philip Roth novel, but he's not the only character who packs a punch. Faunia, brutally abused by her Vietnam vet husband (a sketchy guy who seems to have wandered in from a lesser Russell Banks novel), scarred by the death of her kids, is one of Roth's best female characters ever. The self-serving Delphine Roux is intriguingly (and convincingly) nutty, and any number of minor characters pop in, mouth off, kick ass, and vanish, leaving a vivid sense of human passion and perversity behind. You might call it a stain. --Tim Appelo

From Publishers Weekly

Roth almost never fails to surprise. After a clunky beginning, in which crusty Nathan Zuckerman is carrying on about the orgy of sanctimoniousness surrounding Clinton's Monica misadventures, his new novel settles into what would seem to be patented Roth territory. Coleman Silk, at 71 a distinguished professor at a small New England college, has been harried from his position because of what has been perceived as a racist slur. His life is ruined: his wife succumbs under the strain, his friends are forsaking him, and he is reduced to an affair with 34-year-old Faunia Farley, the somber and illiterate janitor at the college. It is at this point that Zuckerman, Roth's novelist alter ego, gets to know and like Silk and to begin to see something of the personal and sexual liberation wrought in him by the unlikely affair with Faunia. It is also the point at which Faunia's estranged husband Les Farley, a Vietnam vet disabled by stress, drugs and drink, begins to take an interest in the relationship. So far this is highly intelligent, literate entertainment, with a rising tension. Will Les do something violent? Will Delphine Roux, the young French professor Silk had hired, who has come to hate him, escalate the college's campaign against him? Yes, but she now wants to make something of his Faunia relationship too. Then, in a dazzling coup, Roth turns all expectations on their heads, and begins to show Silk in a new and astounding light, as someone who has lived a huge lie all his life, making the fuss over his alleged racism even more surreal. The book continues to unfold layer after layer of meaning. There is a tragedy, as foretold, and an exquisitely imagined ending in which Zuckerman himself comes to feel both threatened and a threat. Roth is working here at the peak of his imaginative skills, creating many scenes at once sharply observed and moving: Faunia's affinity for the self-contained remoteness of crows, Farley's profane longing for a cessation to the tumult in his head, Zuckerman delightedly dancing with Silk to the big band tunes of their youth. He even brings off virtuoso passages that are superfluous but highly impressive, like his dissection of the French professor's lonely anguish in the States. This is a fitting capstone to the trilogy that includes American Pastoral and I Married a Communist--a book more balanced and humane than either, and bound, because of its explosive theme, to be widely discussed. 100,000 first printing.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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First Sentence
IT WAS in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk-who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty-confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings July 30 2008
Format:Paperback
Let me just start with the silliest comment: the only way to find out whether you like this book or not, is by reading it. Most reviews here and on Amazon.com reflect ambivalent feelings. After turning the last page, mine was not altogether negative, but not entirely positive either. This was also my first book by Philip Roth.

Ageing but vigorous professor Coleman Silk is accused of racism in the classroom and forcefully rejecting it (in vain), he chooses to retire after a long, fulfilling and esteemed teaching career. His tale is told by his friend, writer Nathan Zuckerman. Hardly acknowledging each other for years, a friendship begins and Zuckerman tries to understand the multiple facets defining Silk's personality. Unbeknownst to him, he will later discover a secret that Silk has kept for decades, a secret which his life had been, and still is, based on.

Looping around the main theme, there are other characters who are connected with Silk and bear relevance. In the background, Coleman's parents and siblings. Their beginnings, the struggles to send all their children to proper schools for the best education possible. We then have his wife, a strong, independent personality who died during the `racism ordeal', and their four adult children (it's 1998 by then). Silk's bursting rage and pain towards these two -to him- related events (the accusations and his wife's death), find a degree of comfort through the acquaintance -later developing into something much more- of Faunia, a janitor in the Athena college where he used to teach. Faunia, a tormented soul herself, does not seem to be left alone by her ex-husband, Les, who keeps stalking her after a terrible tragedy struck at their home some years previously.
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Format:Paperback
This is a story about the human condition, about each of us being trapped -- trapped ironically by intensely following our own earthly dreams and ambitions -- in a tangled, unavoidably stained web uniquely of our own making: a "human stain" that permanently tarnishes our passage -- everyone's passage -- through life. It also is a saga of a tragic and futile attempt by two individuals to break free of these tangled webs, webs that have defined their lives within differing strata of society, and in the process entangling the embedded author Nathan Zuckerman himself in their human dilemmas and strivings, dilemmas that according to Roth only a maniac creator could have conceived.
I enjoyed this book for lots of reasons, not the least of which being Roth's scorn for the illusions and pretensions infecting the modern ultra-liberal university environment. He also, at least in my view, has the primary and most important battle of modern life squarely in focus, the disconnect between our deepest sense of "self" and the demands made by Western society to negate and thus to enslave that "self," a disconnect that promotes a modern Faustian bargain promising material paradise in return for succumbing to the "system," that costs everything of permanent value, and that ultimately delivers the empty shells of our scooped-out souls at the very gates of hell.
This is not a happy or funny book. At times it rambles, but Roth's reputation has earned that indulgence for him, and of course some "ramblings" provide superb insights into human nature. Some creations in the book are, at least for me, too "cute," such as the middle name "Brutus" for the main character, Dr Coleman Silk, and like the list of pedantic terms used to show Silk's mastery of the English language.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An American tragedy June 13 2004
Format:Paperback
This is a beautiful,intricate story, beautifully and intricately told, about who we are in America at the dawn of the 21st century. It is written with passion, urgency, a touch of fire and brimstone; and Coleman Silk's fate at the hands of the righteous and the ruthless seems to me a genuine tragic vision of American life. Satirical? Roth here is more Jeremiah than Swift. Tom Wolfe likes to venture into something like this territory, but for me, the entire oeuvre of Wolfe doesn't stand up to one page of this magnificent novel.
This is the first Roth I've read since GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, many years ago. I enjoyed that book but didn't think of Roth as a writer I needed to know better. I ran out of reading on vacation, picked up THE HUMAN STAIN in an airport, and was stunned for two days as I read it. A month later I can't stop thinking about it. The word "masterpiece" is applied so promiscuously that it tends to be supremely unhelpful when thinking about any work it purports to describe. But it is hard to think of this book without invoking it.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Get past the agenda April 27 2004
Format:Paperback
Roth is, perhaps, this country's greatest master of the written word. His style is unparalleled and a privilege to read and study. The plot of The Human Stain, though at times tedious and overdrawn, is nevertheless worth the read. The characters are engrossing and well developed and you genuinely come to care for them. The struggle with this book is in getting past Roth's liberal agenda. His apparent point that what takes place behind closed doors is nobody else's business is valid enough, but when those doors are in the White House, and the producer of "The Human Stain" lies to the country about what has taken place, this is a problem that a 300+ word novel about a college professor passing for white cannot atone for. I'd rather be subjected to the blatant liberalism of a Time magazine cover that declares "How the scandal was good for America." A different title and about fifty less pages would have made this a far more enjoyable read. (I invite you to read my book, Living Dead Man, available on Amazon or through my website, [...]
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great choice for Book s
I had seen the film, but obviously, the book has more depth and is even more satisfying. I chose this book for my book club because it has multiple layers and explores contemporary... Read more
Published 3 months ago by brigitte s
3.0 out of 5 stars Meh
Great quality PDF/book, came into my kindle account right away. However did not really enjoy the book, found it quite boring
Published 15 months ago by liz
2.0 out of 5 stars Dull dull dull dull dull...you get the point
This was my first - and probably last - Philip Roth novel. I bought this novel for two reasons. 1) I was in a foreign country and there was not a lot of English language novels... Read more
Published on March 8 2009 by NorthVan Dave
4.0 out of 5 stars Deeply relevant
In short, but expansive descriptions, Roth takes us inside the psyche of his characters and reveals in the process much about our American selves.
Read it if you dare.
Published on July 13 2004 by Deborah Daughtry
5.0 out of 5 stars disregard bengagirl
This is a beautiful, wrenching novel; just what you'd expect of Roth. I think it also might be his most accessible work. Read more
Published on July 12 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Roth Captivated me with thoughts, not Political Statements
All In all an intense book. I would recommend it to anyone with an appreciation for vocab. Roth has every word at his disposal, it seems, when it comes to describing the way people... Read more
Published on April 27 2004 by L. Anderson
2.0 out of 5 stars A tree died for this? Sheesh!
My mother once said to me when I was a young girl that in my life there will be ten books I love with a passion and ten books I hate with a passion
The Human Stain comes under... Read more
Published on April 11 2004 by Kali
5.0 out of 5 stars No matter how hard you try, your past knocks on your door
'The Human Stain' is another great book by one of the best North American writers ever. Philip Roth has assuredly written some of the most critic and acid novels on America issue... Read more
Published on March 21 2004 by A. T. A. Oliveira
1.0 out of 5 stars A Literary Stain
I don't know what Roth was trying to get at in this long and pointless novel, but it's obvious that whatever it was, he missed it by a country mile. Read more
Published on March 7 2004
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