The Human Stain: A Novel Hardcover – May 10 2000
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
This book describes so succinctly the turmoil and oppositional forces going on inside a preson's head at any given time, and as it is doing so it reveals the characters themselves so completely and aggressively it leaves the reader reeling.
The idea here is that, could we see inside each others skulls, the intense, sometimes profane, insane mixture of unconscious thought is not pretty, logical, remotely politically correct, or even believable and we all gaurd secrets.
To some of my fellow reviewers:
Roth's book is all about the consequences of trying to hold secrets - you cannot hide from what you are, because in doing so it still defines what you are. If people know about it they will shape their impressions around it. If you hide it, you will shape your life around hiding it. Its still there whether to try to escape, ingnore, or embrace it, and the way the characters deal with thier secrets is not a political, racial, or righteous statement by roth - or the characters, it merely shows how confused we all are.
Clinton, Coleman, Faunia, Delphine some reviewers here have said they are "un-believable" characters. How do you define believable when most of the book is a stream of consciousness, how can you be so presumptuos as to say what should or should not an issue for a character and in the process ruin the careful crafting of nueroligical turmoil within these people?
And as for Roth advocating white superiority, as one reviewer suggested, what is wrong with you? This character (Coleman) shapes his own life - its about his decisions, his motives, and his own choice.Read more ›
From the early 90's everything you say or do has more than its simple meaning. There is always a hidden agenda, even if you don't mean that --or even if you haven't considered that. People started using terms such as 'afro-Americans', but they didn't care about the afro-American rights, as long as they use the 'right' term. Surrounded by this hysterical blindness the protagonist of this novel, a professor named Coleman Silk, is forced to look back to his past and assume things he supposed to be long forgotten.
His downfall spiral began when he referred to a couple of absent students using the term 'spooks' that in his context meant ghosts, but, as he finds out later, it is also a pejorative term to Afro-Americans. He's forced to retire and his wife dies in consequence of all this trouble.
Silkman reaches Nathan Zuckerman asking to writer the professor's memoirs. The writer doesn't accept, but the professor ends up doing it himself. In this process of rediscovery we learn a lot of his past and how much he had to reinvent himself in order to survive. We also find out about his love affair with a young and problematic janitor, whose ex-husband brings them a lot of problems.
In this novel all about finding out who you were and what was made you --i.e. who you are now-- the master Roth is able to go deep into the wound of correctness and the need of lying and faking who you are so that you can be accepted.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Philip Roth's The Human Stain is an excellent example of what T.S. Eliot described in his essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent. Read morePublished 17 months ago by Michael Wells Glueck
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 morePublished on June 20 2014 by brigitte s
Great quality PDF/book, came into my kindle account right away. However did not really enjoy the book, found it quite boringPublished on June 13 2013 by Sunshine
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 morePublished on March 8 2009 by DocDave
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.
This is a beautiful, wrenching novel; just what you'd expect of Roth. I think it also might be his most accessible work. Read morePublished on July 12 2004
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,... Read morePublished on July 12 2004 by Daniel Biezad
This is a beautiful,intricate story, beautifully and intricately told, about who we are in America at the dawn of the 21st century. Read morePublished on June 13 2004 by mulcahey
Roth is, perhaps, this country's greatest master of the written word. His style is unparalleled and a privilege to read and study. Read morePublished on April 27 2004 by Marc Bernier