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The Human Stain: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

Philip Roth
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (267 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

Product Details

  • File Size: 822 KB
  • Print Length: 379 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 10, 2000)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003JFJHP2
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #48,352 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
130 of 135 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unknowable and Elusive Truth November 8, 2000
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
The Human Stain completes Philip Roth's thematic American trilogy, a meditation on the historical forces in the latter half of the twentieth century that have destroyed many innocent lives. In this trilogy, Roth takes devastating aim at the "American dream" and its empty promises of prosperity, freedom and everlasting happiness.
The trilogy began with American Pastoral, which some believe to be the high point in Roth's career. American Pastoral explored the effects of late-sixties radicalism on the idyllic life of Swede Levov and his family. I Married a Communist, the second book of the trilogy, was somewhat of a disappointment after the near-perfect American Pastoral, but it was still an engrossing story about the McCarthy era, a portrait of a country in which paranoia had displaced reason, allowing rumor and innuendo to run rampant and ruin lives.
The Human Stain closes the trilogy and brings us to the year 1998. The United States is awash in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and citizens feel the "ecstasy of sanctimony;" they are ready to accuse, blame and punish a very good president for what amounts to nothing more than the sexual peccadilloes almost every person becomes involved in at some time during his life.
On its surface, The Human Stain condemns the political correctness of McCarthyism that effectively turns college campuses away from creative thought and toward middle-aged, white, male oppression at any cost. Does this make The Human Stain a campus satire? Yes, but it is so much more and those who think it is not are simply missing the book's deepest level. It is, at its heart, a sad and poignant statement on the very essence of human nature, a statement that, in Roth's talented hands, becomes utterly convincing.
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66 of 73 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
More than an attack on the all-too-familiar topic of political correctness, Roth's new novel manages to encompass the entire culture of self-righteousness and MORAL correctness (which always assumes a more insidious form than the political). While some of the character developments are often less than compelling, the central story of Coleman Silk always remains strong and utterly fascinating. A key point, and often overlooked in reviews, is Roth's revelation (still unknown to many at this late date) of the ambiguity and arbitrary nature of racial classification. If Silk is to be considered black despite being as light as any white man, what does that do to our sense of "innate" and "immutable" racial features? As with morality, holding rigid ideological beliefs about race does little but lead to tragic misunderstandings and a failure to perceive complexity. Despite some detours, Roth is an exceptional writer, always insightful and willing to tackle contemporary controversies without fear. Some might be distracted by the allusions to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, but it does serve its purpose: intelligent, important men are often brought down by their sexual impulses, but such acts should never outweigh other aspects of character and achievement. That we need to be reminded of this time after time is quite sad, but Roth would rather we not forget it. Overall, neither "liberal" nor "conservative" in the conventional sense, but an indictment of a hypocritical society bent on using obfuscation and euphemism to create an environment where, to paraphrase Roth, "what is being said is not what is really going on."
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Human Stain December 3, 2003
Format:Paperback
In a long writing career, Philip Roth has progressively deepened his themes and his understanding of human characteras well as his skill at the novelist's craft. His novel, "The Human Stain" is both entertaining and thought-provoking. It is a worthy addition to American fiction of the early 21st century.
The title of the book sets forth its primary theme. A major part of human life is tied to human sexuality and to physicality. People ignore or downplay this aspect at their peril. This theme is reflected througout the book. Roth, even more than John Updike and with a different perspective than Updike, writes with a passion about the central role of sexuality in human life.
The story unfolds agains a backdrop of the Clinton impeachment hearings. The chief protagonist of the book is Coleman Silk, a 71 year old former professor of Classics and Dean of a small New England College. Silk has resigned from the college as a result of an investigation over a classroom remark that some found racist. His wife of many years has died, and Silk has become romantically involved with a 34 year-old divorced woman with little education who works as a janitor in the college. Silk's former colleagues, his four children and his acquaintances are leery of his affair. Silk befriends Nathan Zukerman, an alter ego who appears in many Roth novels, who tells Silk's story.
Silk has become highly successful but has done so in part by denying important components of his life. He is of African-American ancestry but light enough to pass. (Many American novels utilize the theme of "passing" for white.) He callously walks away from his family at the age of 27 in order to marry a white woman for fear that she would reject him if she were aware of his ancestry. He never reveals the secret.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books I've read
One of the best books I've read. The depth of understanding of human nature, human relationships, and social pressures in human relationships is deft and penetrating. Read more
Published 17 hours ago by Gerald L. Harper
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
I am overwhelmed by this story. A rich telling of a special moment in history. I loved this book. I read American Pastoral earlier this summer and loved it so I decided I'd try... Read more
Published 8 days ago by Karen W
5.0 out of 5 stars The Human Stain: A review
The implementation of language, the twist of the politically incorrect, the various voices and points of view all toggle to create a wondrously complex and alluring contemplation... Read more
Published 10 days ago by nancy
4.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended!
This is a very touching story of a man who grew up in Essex County, New Jersey, and spent his life attempting to keep secret a fact about himself. Read more
Published 11 days ago by Tom
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
great!
Published 15 days ago by Clare
3.0 out of 5 stars ... & forth between characters - the flow was not good. BUT it kept my...
Too much going back & forth between characters - the flow was not good. BUT it kept my interest.
Published 16 days ago by florence speth
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow
I tried to count how many human stains there are in this book and in the lives of the characters.
Published 1 month ago by Robert L. Glidden Jr.
2.0 out of 5 stars Misery and sorrow
I found the book densely written, overly long with interminable descriptions of minutia about a sorry lot of characters. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Paul S
4.0 out of 5 stars Philip Roth book.
Very good and interesting read about a college professor. My Book Club picked this book for June and
will be discussing it next week.
Published 2 months ago by Caryn
4.0 out of 5 stars Comments on American society
This book displays Roth's skill at encompassing a variety of views and attitudes of America in the late 80s and 90s, when attitudes on race and religion had changed so much in the... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Alistair Blunt
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More About the Author

In the 1990s Philip Roth won America's four major literary awards in succession: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony (1991), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock (1993), the National Book Award for Sabbath's Theater (1995), and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for American Pastoral (1997). He won the Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union for I Married a Communist (1998); in the same year he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House. Previously he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Counterlife (1986) and the National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959). In 2000 he published The Human Stain, concluding a trilogy that depicts the ideological ethos of postwar America. For The Human Stain Roth received his second PEN/Faulkner Award as well as Britain's W. H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year. In 2001 he received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, given every six years "for the entire work of the recipient." In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians Award for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003--2004." In 2007 Roth received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Everyman.

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