What to do with Philip Roth?

I have a love/hate relationship with Philip Roth, the author of more than 30 novels, of a breadth and depth that may be unknown in American literature — most certainly in modern American literature. The Human Stain

He’s been turning out great work since “Goodbye, Columbus” was published in 1960. He’s won too many awards to count and the literature community is placing bets on when — not whether — he will become the next Nobel Prize winner from the United States. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review asked prominent literary critics (yet somehow, not me), writers, editors and other book-ie people to list the single best American novel of the past 25 years. Six of Roth’s works were in the top 22 chosen by these couple hundred people. One of them was “The Human Stain.”

This novel came out in 2000, when the United States was still divided over the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky event and the way Clinton was pilloried by self-righteous, laughably puritanical politicians. It was a time when an accusation was the only proof that was necessary. “Stain” tells a similar story, but with a racial twist.

Classics professor Coleman Silk has been forced to resign from his small, East Coast college because he has been deemed a racist. The label comes from the offhand comment he makes about two students who have never come to one of his classes: “Does anyone know these students or are they spooks?” Of course, the students turn out to be African Americans and the outcry — manufactured by those who didn’t know or care that Silk did not know the students were black — leads to the end of his respected career and, Silk believes, his wife’s death. A few years later, lonely and angry, Silk embarks on a sexual relationship with Faunia, an illiterate janitor and part-time milkmaid. It’s an affair that dooms them both.

So that’s the setup. Then Roth ratchets it up by revealing Silk is black, and has been passing as white for most of his life. The story of how Silk becomes white may be the weakest section of the book. His motivation for this decision is murky. Even Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, who narrates the novel, must piece it together: “What underlies the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs? Nobody knows…” Still, as a work of fiction, we readers would like to know.

Anyway, it’s not long before Roth rolls out the filthy sex he has reveled in his whole career. How could he not? An old man is having an emotionless, sex-only affair with a woman decades younger than he is. Faunia’s history of sexual abuse has turned her into a sexual dynamo and Roth shoves it in our face over and over. But to what point? (Roth mines this subject for his later novel, “The Humbling” but adds lesbians, three-ways and strap-ons; despite this, it’s crappy.)

He even sexualizes the cows Faunia milks at her second job in this sentence that’s so beautifully constructed, I kept returning to: “The carnally authoritative-looking creatures were those with the bodies that took up all the space, the creamy-colored cows with the free-swinging, girder like hips and the barrel-wide paunches and the disproportionately cartoonish milk-swollen udders, the unagitated, slow-moving, strife-free cows, each a fifteen-hundred-pound industry of its own gratification, big-eyed beasts for whom chomping at one extremity from a fodder-filled trough while being sucked dry at the other by not one or two or three but by four pulsating, untiring mechanical mouths — for whom sensual stimulus simultaneously at both ends was their voluptuous due.” Holy cow!

The novel is funny, strange, off-putting and meandering. It’s sad, heart-breaking and infuriating. Anything that sets off all those emotions must be better than I felt after reading it. I’m still thinking about it, so that says something, too. But I’d not recommend this book to anyone. I’d mostly like to find someone who could discuss it with to help me sort it all out, especially the ending, in which Roth says the wrong people always pay for others’ actions.

I’ve read several Roth books and, with the exception of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and the brilliant “The Plot Against America” (seriously, read this book), I’ve been disappointed by some aspect of each. Is it me? Is it him? Is it us? I don’t know. But I’ll still read Roth, because he makes me laugh, think and marvel at his wondrous writing.

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