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Original Sin

THE HUMAN STAIN A Novel By Philip Roth; Houghton Mifflin: 364 pp., $26

May 28, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

American pastoral, American historical, American comical and now, with the appearance of his latest novel "The Human Stain," American tragical--it's time to circumcise the genre of "Jewish American" from Philip Roth's name and declare him, simply, bard supreme of the bad end of the American century past. The bad end, for Roth, is the Clinton end, the Lewinsky end, the blasted heath of an America infatuated as Malvolio in its propriety and senile as Lear in its forgetfulness. "As a force, propriety is protean, a dominatrix in a thousand disguises, infiltrating, if need be, as civic responsibility, WASP dignity, women's rights, black pride, ethnic allegiance, or emotion-laden Jewish ethical sensitivity. It's not as though Marx or Freud or Darwin or Stalin or Hitler or Mao had never happened--it's as though Sinclair Lewis had not happened."

But propriety is only the launching pad for Roth, the Laureate of Rage. The latest of his Zuckerman novels, "The Human Stain" once again uses Roth's aging alter ego, the author Nathan Zuckerman, to embellish the perceived with the color of fiction and reveal a more potent, mythic truth.

The perceived, in this case, is the raw scar of an angry old man. Coleman Brutus Silk, the legendary classics professor and dean of Athena College in the Berkshires, finds himself at age 71 shorn of laurels, job and wife. Two years earlier, while taking attendance in his course "Gods, Heroes, and Myth," Coleman remarked on the absence of two students who, five weeks into the term, had yet to appear in class. "Does anyone know these people?" Coleman asks. "Do they exist or are they spooks?" When the offending students turn out to be African Americans, Coleman's chance remark on their corporeality is twisted into a second, racist definition of "spook": a derogatory term for a black person.

Coleman rages, defends himself against a faculty that turns against him in variations of political correctness and political hatred, engaging in "America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony." The affair destroys him and literally kills his wife, Iris. He leaves the university and holes up at home writing the history of his injustice, trying to drown his rage in the words of a scholar who "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."

But by the time the famous author Nathan Zuckerman, in similar seclusion in a house not far away, comes upon Coleman (who, although a few years older, hails from Nathan's native East Orange, N.J.), he finds a man on the cusp of a discovery. Coleman has found peace in a new kind of affair, an affair that has nothing to do with the university or his previous life as a dignified Jewish academic, father of four and husband of the departed Iris nee Gittleman.

Faunia Farley, 36 years old, is a janitor. Dirty blond hair held back in a rubber band, Faunia cleans the post office. She cleans the classrooms and dormitories at Athena College. "She had a husband," Coleman tells Nathan. "He beat her so badly she ended up in a coma. They had a dairy farm. He ran it so badly it went bankrupt. She had two children. A space heater tipped over, caught fire, and both children were asphyxiated." Faunia is illiterate and utterly uninterested in the ancient gods and goddesses that have ruled Coleman's life. And Faunia is Coleman's lover. "In bed," Coleman confesses, "nothing escapes Faunia's attention. Her flesh has eyes. Her flesh sees everything."

*

Unfortunately for the pair, nothing escapes the psychotic attention of Faunia's Vietnam vet of an ex-husband or the psycho-literary attention of the young Yale-educated French woman who chaired Coleman's department at Athena and helped drive him from the forehead of the university. Unrestrained pleasure is not permitted in Babbitt country. Coleman and Faunia come to a bad end. And in that end, strangely enough, they lie more as characters than humans, as wax figures of the old Jewish guy and the young white-trash girl, Greek masks in a tale of retribution.

But "outside the classical tragedy of the fifth century B.C.," Nathan writes, "the expectation of completion, let alone of a just and perfect consummation, is a foolish illusion for an adult to hold." Enter the artist as savior, as the breather of life and humanity into this tale of the old guy and the young girl; enter Nathan with the great discovery that adds tragedy to the human comedy. Coleman is black. It is a twist that not only throws "spooks" into a spiral but forces a reassessment of Coleman's entire story.

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