The Boston Phoenix
May 25 - June 1, 2000

[Book Reviews]

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Hat trick

Philip Roth's American trilogy

by Steve Vineberg

THE HUMAN STAIN, By Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin, 361 pages, $26.

Philip Roth The Human Stain is the third volume in Philip Roth's unofficial trilogy about the most troubling and unresolvable monoliths of American life in the second half of the 20th century. In American Pastoral the Vietnam War gives birth to the mysterious radicalism of a middle-class teenage girl. I Married a Communist probes the social and political climate of the McCarthy period. The Human Stain begins as a fable for the Clinton era, about an aging classicist at a New England college whose reputation is tarred by an unjust accusation of racism and then by the gossip generated by his affair with a maintenance worker half his age. But its more compelling subject is race. Nearly a hundred pages into the narrative, Roth -- with a deftness so triumphant that I found myself flipping back through the book to see how I could possibly have missed the signs -- reveals that his protagonist, Coleman Silk, is a black man who's spent his adult life passing for white. "He's set himself up like the moon to be only half visible," observes the narrator of Coleman's story, Roth's familiar alter ego Nathan Zuckerman.

The book is about secret lives, about the attempt to seize the ultimate freedom and reinvent the self. In order to live as a white man, Coleman (a character surely inspired by the black essayist Anatole Broyard, who lived for years as a Caucasian) has to cut off all contact with the mother who adores him; to satisfy his Jewish wife and his curious children -- each one a dangerous risk, a toss of the dice, as there's no way to predict their skin color -- he designs a whole new family history. His lover, Faunia Farley, a girl from a privileged background, reinvents herself as an illiterate, a non-achiever, and buries herself in the working class, taking refuge from the reality of a molesting stepfather. Her ex-husband, Les, a Vietnam vet, is the one major character who lacks the wherewithal for a metamorphosis. He can't shake off the trauma of combat; when their children die in a fire, Faunia becomes, for him, merely a new version of the old enemy. Roth sees the common layering of identities in Coleman and Faunia as the force that draws them together: she is "the unlikely intimate with whom he shares no less a spiritual than a physical union . . . who is more like a comrade-in-arms than anyone else on earth."

The "human stain"-- wonderful title! -- is the reason all these attempts at reinvention are, finally, futile: something of the original always shows through the new coat of paint. And in the case of Coleman Silk, the wordsmith taught at his black daddy's knee to revere language, that something is a telltale word. Not "spooks," the word he chooses to characterize two absent undergraduates (the word that labels him as a racist when the students turn out to be African-American), but "lily-white," the adjective he flings at the self-righteous lawyer who begs him to end his relationship with Faunia because of the further havoc it has wreaked on his reputation in this fishbowl Berkshires community. "Lily-white" is an odd word for one white man to use to insult another. It turns out to be an echo: completing the exile Coleman had begun for himself, his older brother Walter warned him to keep his "lily-white" face away from their mother's house. "The human stain" is also what Nathan Zuckerman seeks vainly to escape when, rendered impotent by prostate cancer, he becomes a rural recluse, only to be lured back to life by Coleman's overtures of friendship. And it's the thing Coleman's detractors, worshippers in the cult of the appropriate, can't abide about this 70-year-old man's passionate connection with a 34-year-old campus employee.

This is a great story, its elements interwoven masterfully. But unlike American Pastoral and I Married a Communist (and Roth's other '90s masterpiece, Operation Shylock), it falls short, I think, of being a great novel. The Les Farley plot, about a vet struggling with PTSD, lacks freshness; it's the only time I can think of in a book by Roth that I felt he was going over well-tilled ground and failing to turn up anything new. He satirizes Delphine Roux, the émigrée Parisian academic who is Coleman's campus nemesis, with gleeful savagery, and there are memorable minor characters (among them Coleman's Greenwich Village mistress, Steena Palsson, and his schoolteacher sister, Ernestine), but Faunia never comes fully to life -- I couldn't hear a recognizable voice in either her inner monologue or her dialogue with Coleman.

Still, it's a marvelous book, with scenes that live on in your head. Two focus on dances: Steena's private striptease for her lover to Roy Eldridge's trumpet solo on "The Man I Love," and a spontaneous pas de deux Coleman and Nathan execute to Frank Sinatra's rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Even more than I Married a Communist, which reaches its emotional high note on the friendship between a man in his '60s and his former high-school teacher in his final days, The Human Stain is, in the finest sense, an old man's novel. Faunia Farley and Viagra help Coleman Silk to transcend the rigors of advancing age; Nathan Zuckerman is "danced back into life" by a new friendship and the dynamism of his friend's tale. And Philip Roth, age 67, is the most vital writer of American prose as it enters the new century.