A big thanks to all for your readership, kind comments and support over the past year. I’m looking forward to bringing you more exciting stories in 2011.
Have a Happy, Peaceful New Year!
“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth
I’ve never read any of the twenty plus books written by Philip Roth, and if this one is an indication of his writing style, human insight and philosophy on life, I’m hooked.
Roth attacks and exposes the evils of built-in prejudices such as racism, sexism and general hate and bigotry that many of us have but refuse to admit or face. The story, narrated by fictional author Nathan Zuckerman for a book titled ‘Spooks’ based on Coleman Silk’s life, is the third in an “American” trilogy written by Roth’s invented author. It revolves around Silk, a classics professor at an unreal college in Massachusetts called Athena.
Professor Silk is the first and only Jew ever to serve at Athena as dean of faculty. But, is he really a Jew, or has he been living with a secret past since his early 20’s? At that time he disowned his family and began a new life, far removed from the New Jersey neighborhood where he grew up.
Silk was forced into retirement for using the word “spooks” in one of his classes when referring to two students that had never attended class. “Do they exist or are the spooks?” he asked one day? Unfortunately, the two students happened to be African-American. The remark was taken as a racial slur, and a complaint was brought against him. In Silk’s mind, the word meant ghosts or phantoms and he refused to apologize, becoming more furious over the uproar. Because of that off-the-cuff remark; specifically the word “spook” that many deemed racist, his resignation was inevitable.
He was subsequently removed from his esteemed position. Shortly after leaving the University, his wife died. Silk blames her death on the stress related to his dismissal and alienates himself from his friends, colleagues and grown children. I interpret this isolation as a metaphor of the life he’s been living throughout his adult years.
Eventually the 72-year-old Silk starts an affair with Faunia Farley, a 34-year-old, hardened, illiterate janitor at the College with a sordid past. She was once married to a violent, unstable, Vietnam War veteran who continues to stalk her, and eventually Silk. During this affair, Silk receives a mysterious, ominous letter stating that “everyone knows of his affair,” adding to his already scandalous past. The letter, we later learn, has been sent by the new power-hungry, well-schooled young chair of Silk’s previous department, Delphine Roux. This is a person Silk hired and has been in constant conflict with ever since. Come to find out, she too is hiding a secret.
Set in the late 1980’s, an era of big secrets and lies (think Clinton/Lewinsky), I thought this book offered keen insight into what drives people to succeed and what they will do in order to keep their dignity or pride, no matter the consequences. I found the book engaging, well written and ironic in its story line. The characters were realistic and in some cases heartbreaking. There were many ironies found throughout the story such as Professor Silk’s affair with an illiterate janitor, the book Zuckerman is writing about Silk’s life entitled ‘Spooks’ and the actual book title ’The Human Stain’ that relates directly to our skin colors and how they’re perceived by others. Highly recommended!