• The Human Stain
  • The 1st Edition cover of Philip Roth's brilliant The Human Stain (2000)

    Author:  Philip Roth

  • Rank:  #86
  • Published:  2000
  • Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin
  • Pages:  361 (1st Edition)
  • First Line:  “It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk – who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of the faculty – confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.”
  • Last Line:  “Only rarely, at the end of our century, does life offer up a vision as pure and peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that’s constantly turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  2003  –  ***  (dir. Robert Benton)
  • Acclaim:  PEN / Faulkner Award
  • Read:  Summer, 2000

The Novel: At the end of the nineties, Philip Roth was completing his second trilogy of Nathan Zuckerman books.  The first trilogy, written in the late seventies and early eighties, had focused on Zuckerman’s career as a writer and his alienation, both from his family, and from the world.  The second trilogy, consisting of American Pastoral (the 1998 Pulitzer winner), I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, is connected by its narrative of the America (and specifically, New Jersey) of Zuckerman’s youth, but they are not his stories.  His is merely the voice giving life to stories in which he only has a marginal involvement.  The Human Stain, the last, and finest of the second trilogy, is a reminder that Roth, more than any other writer, makes tremendous use of anger as a driving narrative force.  Two sentences from the middle of the book seem to sum up the entirety of Coleman Silk’s story: “The urge to expose the capricious cruelty of their righteous idiocy flooded him with rage.  He was back on the hill in the bondage of his rage and he could feel its intensity driving out all sense and demanding that he take immediate action.”

Coleman Silk is the classics professor at Athena College and the former dean and he has made many enemies.  When a use of the word “spooks” to describe two students who never show up is considered demeaning because it is revealed that  the students are black, he is hounded and eventually quits the university.  There are certainly people who would read the novel and think that this is an over-reaction, but as someone who grew up on college campuses and who has been through horrible job experiences with people being hounded out of jobs, this seemed all too real for me the second I read it.  Most of the first part of the novel deals with his rage over the death of his wife, who he feels was killed by those pushing him out of the college and the subsequent affair he has with a cleaning woman in town who is half his age.  But what the dust jacket actually kept secret, though it quickly became well known about the book, is that Silk himself is a light-skinned black, who has been passing all of his adult life.  This is not presented as a mystery that Zuckerman must dig into, but rather matter of factly, early in the second part of the novel.  We are simply immersed in Coleman’s life growing up and we only slowly realize the truth ourselves.  It is not until very late in the book that Zuckerman, reveals to us how he knows this information.  For it is not the revelation of the information that Zuckerman feels is important.  It’s not about the mystery of it.  It’s about what made Coleman so filled with rage that he would react to life in this way.

Zuckerman has moved out to Athena to escape the world that he has known in the previous books.  He is only dimly aware of Coleman until he shows up on Zuckerman’s doorstop after his wife’s funeral, demanding his story be told.  Not the whole story, not the story of his childhood, but the story of how he has been hounded from his job and his life.  This brings Zuckerman back to life, in much the same way that the presence of Jerry Levov and Murray Ringold, people from Zuckerman’s past, do in the two previous books in the trilogy: “That was how I ceased being able to live apart from the turbulence and intensity that I had fled.  I did no more than find a friend, and all the world’s malice came rushing in.”  While Zuckerman presents the story calmly, there is no question that disgust at the world around him (all of this is set during the days that the Clinton / Lewinsky affair was coming to light and was constantly in the news) spurs him to discovery.  For we also learn fairly early on that Coleman and Faunia, the cleaning woman he has come to love, are dead within four months.  We know that there is no happy ending to their tale.  “They are the disaster to which they are enjoined,” as Zuckerman will tell us.

But then there is the other part of the tale, the one that seems to take the novel to the next level.  There is the character of Les Farley, the brutal and brutalized Vietnam vet who was married to Faunia.  Their children died and their marriage died and Les is tormented both by the deaths of his children and by the deaths he witnessed (and caused) in Vietnam.  A considerable portion of the novel deals with the attempt of friends to get Les to visit the traveling version of The Vietnam Wall.  He finally does and finds that he has achieved a form of serenity.  He simply can not feel anything.  Perhaps he causes the death of Faunia and Coleman (they die in a car accident and Zuckerman certainly believes that Les is responsible).  But then Zuckerman is sidetracked by meeting Coleman’s sister and the chance to learn the entire history of this Coleman Silk that he thought he knew, but in fact, didn’t, this black man who passed for most of his life and left his family behind.

Then comes the final, amazing scene.  Zuckerman is headed down to New Jersey, for where else could a character like Coleman who would intersect Zuckerman’s world come from except New Jersey, to find out the whole story from Coleman’s siblings when he sees Les ice fishing.  He stops and goes down to talk to Les.  And we have this strange scene, of the man, scarred by violence and this other man, this author, the man who simply knows how to write, and they have a strange conversation that leads up to that final beautiful sentence.  And in the end, we don’t have any answers as to what would come of that conversation with Coleman’s family or whether or not Les might have had something to do with the deaths.  For Zuckerman has to talk to him: “Now that they’re dead, nobody can know.  For better or worse, I can only do what everyone does who thinks that they know.  I imagine.  I am forced to imagine.  It happens to be what I do for a living.  It is my job.  It’s now all I do.”  That is indeed all he does.  And so he walks away from Les, atop that arcadian mountain in America at the end of the century.

the poster for the 2003 film version of The Human Stain

The Film: Most reviews of The Human Stain focus on two problems.  The first is that Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman aren’t particularly well cast.  I would agree, although, if you give a strong enough performance that can overcome the problems with casting (and while Kidman isn’t as great, Hopkins rightfully channels the righteous rage of Coleman Silk).  The second is that Anthony Hopkins doesn’t particularly resemble Wentworth Miller, who plays the younger Coleman.  And to be certain, those are both problematic aspects of the film.  But there is a bigger problem with the film, and it’s what keeps the film not only from taking that step from a good film to a very good film, but what weakens it as an adaptation of the novel.  It is the casting of Gary Sinise and making Nathan Zuckerman, essentially a minor role.  This is the big problem because it is Zuckerman’s voice, the use that Roth makes of his longtime character that gives a perspective to the story.  Gary Sinise, so obviously not Jewish, and far too young to play Zuckerman is simply wrong for the part.  Part of what makes the novel so amazing is that we remember Zuckerman as he used to be, so full of rage against the world, the angry young jew, and now he is telling the tale of another man’s anger.

This film, instead, is structured as if it were a great mystery.  This is why, no matter its strengths or weaknesses as a film, it is never truly an adaptation of the novel.  The novel is never about the mystery.  It is about the rage against what a “civilized society” does to its people.  If we want to look at it simply as a film, then it is a perfectly fine film.  Hopkins is good, Kidman isn’t bad and Ed Harris is particularly good.  It is well-made and it moves along well, towards what becomes an obvious tragic conclusion.  But the question becomes, why make the film if you don’t want to make it about the anger?  There have been other films about passing for white, from Pinky to Imitation of Life to Lost Boundaries.  This is essentially two films pushed together, one about the elderly man having the affair with the younger woman while the crazy ex-husband is hanging around that also just happens to have a story about how the elderly man is not what he seems.  But it’s not the novel.