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. It reminds us of our very unpraiseworthy proclivity to condemn, sully and even find some secret and voluptuous joy in ruining the name of others and delivering their lives into the hands of misery. The real truth, Roth tells us, is both "endless" and unknowable, no matter how much we may wish to label it with our petty accusations. Most of us, however, find this unknowability unacceptable, and so, we leave our own unmistakable "human stain" in our wake.
Coleman Silk, Roth's protagonist in The Human Stain, understands truth's unknowablility all too well. This seventy-one year old professor, who was once a beloved classicist of Athena College, now faces a scandal much like the one faced by President Clinton. And, like Clinton, Silk has done a very good job; his efforts as dean have left their mark of excellence. Athena College is all the better for his having been there, just as the United States is all the better for the Clinton years. Nevertheless, Silk finds himself accused of being both a racist and a misogynist.
Shamed publicly, Silk does exact revenge, but revenge for what? What exactly is the truth in this matter? While those in Silk's community want to see "truth" as a matter of black and white, the novel's narrator, Nathan Zuckerman tells us that "truth," at least in this case, if not in every case, is something that is more nuanced, more grey. And, in a delightfully ironic twist, we learn that Silk has a secret to share, one that makes his accusers turn beet-red with embarrassment rather than with exhilaration.
Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's own alter-ego, has appeared in eight of his novels, including the first two of this trilogy. He is the man in whom the reader must place his trust, or his mistrust. Zuckerman willingly admits that he knows only certain facts about his protagonists, that he must rely on his own innate gift for storytelling to convince us of the things that he, himself, sees so clearly, and that we are certainly free to accept or deny his version as we will.
Roth could have chosen to tell his story from the vantage point of an objective, omniscient narrator and thus allowed us access to the thoughts and feelings of all the characters involved. At first glance, this might seem to have been the wiser choice. A second glance, however, will show us it would have been a travesty, an audacious claim to actually know what the elusive and unknowable truth really is. Telling the story from the point-of-view of the highly subjective Zuckerman is tantamount to an admission of the elusiveness of truth; it is allowing us to form our own opinions without manipulation from either the author or from any of his characters. It is, genius.
If there is any blemish, however slight, in this wonderful literary achievement, it is the character of Les Farley. Les is the now-cliched Vietnam veteran; a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the weary, misunderstood and maligned soldier who has been abandoned by a country for whom he was willing to give up his very life. Roth uses Farley as a plot device only, and he is one that fails to convince in an otherwise overwhelmingly convincing book.
Roth's prose is, as always, without rival. His Jamesian sentences twist and turn with a vitality and energy that, at times, can seem almost frantic. But Roth never jeopardizes his lucidity; he is a linguistic master who can take us on the most tumultuous ride with an ease and smoothness that other authors can only dream about.
The Human Stain is Philip Roth at the top of his form. It is also American fiction at its very finest and a book that is definitely not to be missed.