It is the summer of 1998, and while the Clinton/Lewinsky affair is smeared across the headlines, a more intriguing scandal is unfolding in a small New England college town. Coleman Silk, dean of Athena College, has been forced to retire because of spurious charges of racism. When his wife has a heart attack, Silk rails against his accusers for causing her death. In an act of emotional rehabilitation, he then initiates an affair with a much younger, illiterate woman, and once again is castigated by the sanctimonious community.
This is the scenario around which Philip Roth masterfully constructs his new novel, The Human Stain. But while a less experienced (or less talented) novelist might have felt that unraveling the events and consequences of the scandal were enough, Roth has a lot more on his mind. He pulls an unexpected ace from his sleeve about a quarter of the way through the book, letting readers in on a startling secret. The truth about Coleman Silk, which not even his wife knew, throws an ironic light on the charges of racism, and in one stroke pushes the story beyond a mere indictment of a witch hunt. With the turn of a page, the book becomes a study in the price of personal pride, a powerful statement about racism and identity in America, and a tragedy that transcends the personal and stains us all.
The Human Stain is the final book in a loosely connected trilogy of novels about postwar America that Roth has produced over the last four years. The first book of the group, American Pastoral, won the Pulitzer Prize; the second was I Married a Communist. These recent novels are clearly the work of an older writer wrestling with large issues, and though they lack the quirky humor that established Roth as a popular writer back in the '60s, they stretch his literary achievement in directions one might not have imagined, back when Portnoy's Complaint was causing a small scandal of its own.
A book both to savor and to ponder, The Human Stain will speak to anyone who has watched with bafflement as civility and geniality have been systematically drained from our cultural dialogue.