"The Human Stain" by Philip Roth

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"The Human Stain" by Philip Roth

Postby Upton_O_Goode » Wed Oct 11, 2017 9:22 pm

I'm about 2/3 through this little gem and thought I'd post about it. In a way, it's a sequel to Roth's heart-breaking novel "American Pastoral." It's set 30 years later, but the narrator is once again Roth's alter ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It tells the story of a man named Coleman Silk, a professor of classics who had a great deal of pride in his work and refused to be intimidated by the cuckoo left-wing enforcers of political correctness on his campus. He resigns in protest. But the book is told in retrospect, and we learn that Silk actually had a very deep secret that he revealed to no one, not even his wife and children. Even to hint at what it was would be grossly unfair to both the author and the potential reader, so I'm going to leave that part out, and also (since I haven't myself found out yet) exactly what happened to Silk.

I've been a fan of Roth's writing ever since "Goodbye Columbus." The versatility of it overwhelms me. I wondered when I read "When She Was Good" where he got such an intimate understanding of the mentality of Midwestern Protestants, as his own background was east-coast and Jewish. He really knew what was going on inside their head. In this novel, he plays the same trick again, through Silk's New York girl friend Steena from Minnesota, who says, "My mother's too practical to be submerged. The characteristics of her family—and I don't think it's peculiar to that family, I think Danes are this way, and they're not too different from Norwegians in this way either—they're interested in objects. Objects Tablecloths. Dishes, Vases. they talk endlessly about how much each object costs. My mother's father is like this too, my grandfather Rasmussen. Her whole family. They don't have any dreams in them. They don't have any unreality. Everything is made up of objects and what they cost and how much you can get them for. She goes into people's houses and examines all the objects and knows where they got half of them and tells them where they could have got them for less. And clothing. Each object of clothing. Same thing. Practicality. A bare-boned practicality about the whole bunch of them. Thrifty. Extremely thrifty. Clean. Extremely clean... So that's my parents. I can't get to the bottom with her particularly. On anything. It's all surface. She's organizing everything and my father's disorganizing everything, and so I got to be eighteen and graduated high school and came here."

I read that and thought, "Yes, that's the family I came from all right, down to the smallest detail. Not the slightest interest in anything that isn't a physical object or a planned activity."

So, Roth is, in my view, the greatest living American author, and this is another of his masterpieces.
"A general conversion among the boys was once effected by the late excellent Mr. Fletcher: one poor boy only excepted, who unfortunately resisted the influence of the Holy Spirit, for which he was severely flogged; which did not fail of the desired effect, and impressed proper notions of religion on his mind."

James Lackington, Memoirs of the First Forty-five Years of the Life of James Lackington, the Present Bookseller

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