The Human Stain By Philip Roth Houghton Mifflin 361 pp., $26
Philip Roth has written another brilliant novel, but almost anything you read about "The Human Stain" will spoil the effect. Several reviewers have already blown it. (They should be forced to watch "The Crying Game" 100 times.) If you plan to read the book, beware what else you read about it.
Roth's favorite narrator and alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is back to tell the surprising life story of Coleman Silk, "an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer." At a time when Silk should be attending dedicatory ceremonies with other retired professors, he finds himself raging against a politically correct mob that drove him from the halls of Athena College.
At the height of his power as dean at Athena, Coleman made as many improvements as enemies. He took "an antiquated, backwater, Sleepy Hollowish college and, not without steamrolling, put an end to the place as a gentlemen's farm." When his invigorating, if brutal, administration was done, he returned triumphantly to the classroom full time. A life well spent.
If only he hadn't uttered that word.
He was teaching a small seminar on classic drama. By the sixth week, two of the students on his roster had still never appeared. "Does anyone know these people?" Coleman asks his class. "Do they exist or are they spooks?"
Though he obviously used the word "spooks" in its older, spectral sense, his enemies quickly mass a long-delayed assault. The two missing students, whom Coleman had never seen, file a charge of racism against him. His annoyed rejection of the charge as "spectacularly false" only confirms his racism - along with providing proof of his misogyny, elitism, perversity, conservatism, and satanism. Before Coleman can believe anyone would take this seriously, the new dean launches an investigation, the black student union mounts protests, and his embittered department chair dedicates her life to saving the tender victims. The vitriolic battle consumes Coleman and - he believes with blinding anger - kills his wife.
It seems late in the day to satirize the tyranny of political correctness, but Roth's devastating portrayal makes up with wit and insight what it sometimes lacks in originality. Besides, this engrossing book is far more than a satire of college life or the absurdities of its PC liturgy. "The Human Stain" provides one of the most provocative explorations of race and rage in American literature.
When Coleman pounds on Zuckerman's door and orders him to write a book that will expose the injustice he's endured, the quiet narrator has no intention of complying. But over the ensuing months, these two old men develop a friendship that Zuckerman cherishes for its rare intimacy, a connection that pulls the lonely writer back into "entanglement with life."
He watches in awe as Coleman initiates an explicitly detailed sexual relationship with a college cleaning woman half his age. But Coleman's new bliss is quickly threatened: His lover's ex-husband, still haunted by the Vietnam War, is insanely jealous, and Coleman's nemesis back at Athena takes one last stab that ignites the disgraced professor into another fit of indignation.
Zuckerman begins to see wrath as a pathogen infecting the entire culture. Set against the fiery persecution of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the ironies in this novel multiply faster than the "ILOVEYOU" virus.
The tragedy of Coleman's self-immolation is multiplied by the fact that he fully understands what's happening to him. "He knew," Zuckerman laments, "that indignation on such a scale was a form of madness, and one to which he could succumb. He knew that indignation like this could lead to no orderly and reasoned approach to the problem. He knew from the wrath of Achilles, the rage of Philoctetes, the fulminations of Medea, the madness of Ajax, the despair of Electra, and the suffering of Prometheus the many horrors that can ensue when the highest degree of indignation is achieved and, in the name of justice, retribution is exacted and a cycle of retaliation begins."
A dozen forms of rage flow through this story like lava. To Roth's way of thinking, each is inspired by a deeply buried sense of guilt and a determination to scorch away someone else's failings. The summer of crazy obsession with Bill and Monica's sexscapade was not, he suggests, an aberration. It "revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony."
This latest novel from a man who's won every literary award in America confirms the growing sense that it will be impossible to understand the late 20th century without reading Philip Roth.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society