Philip Roth’s new novel, The Human Stain, is the third installment of a trilogy devoted to postwar America. Just as 1997’s American Pastoral examined the psychic wreckage of the ’60s and 1998’s I Married a Communist delved into the mind-set of the McCarthy era, The Human Stain gets its impetus from — and directs its satire at — the feverish puritanism and identity politics of recent years. But if, in conceiving this uneven masterpiece of provocation, the author has kept one eye on the evening news, the other one is trained on Greek tragedy. And his mind is still consumed by the themes of ethnic identity and sexual compulsion that he’s been meditating on through his entire career.
The opening pages reintroduce us to the pre-impeachment summer of 1998, ”the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge.” The author Nathan Zuckerman — Roth’s alter ego through seven previous novels, now living in monastic solitude in the Berkshires — is writing about his recent friendship with Coleman Silk, a former classics professor whose life was destroyed after students took his utterance of the word spooks as a racial slur. The proud, prideful Silk had battled his persecutors vigorously until his wife died of a stroke and he resigned in raving indignation. Since then, the 71-year-old has been consoling himself with the company of Faunia Farley, a 34-year-old janitor whose personal history of abuse seems to have damaged everything but her libido. Their affair arouses the ire of Faunia’s deranged ex-husband and the condemnation of one of Coleman’s former colleagues, the girlish French professor who led the witch-hunt against him.
The operative irony here — scrambling back through Roth’s marvelously complex narrative — is that the protagonist, the accused racist, is himself black; his life is a text of secrets and lies. After a sheltered youth in East Orange, N.J., after a few infuriating months at Howard University, the light-skinned Silk chooses to cast off his family and to let others believe that he’s white. He desires to be ”free on a scale unimaginable to his father. As free as his father had been unfree.” Which also means that he’s free to fall.
Even though The Human Stain occasionally falters — Roth’s renderings of secondary characters are as heartless as they are funny — it stands as an affecting story about identity and dislocation, a tragedy of the absurd. The title phrase comes to us by the way of the dispossessed Faunia, whom Zuckerman imagines visiting an orphaned crow at the Audubon Society and reflecting on the domesticated bird’s failure to handle itself in the wild: ”’That’s what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The human stain.’… We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen — there’s no other way to be here.” Consider this powerful novel a multifaceted attempt to touch the intangible, to dramatize the inescapable taint on each of our lives. B+