November 13th, 2009
I’m not keeping any secrets here when I admit that I had a really, really hard time reading American Pastoral. In fact, I would say I was very anti-Philip Roth after finishing that novel. Never wanted to read another of his books again. Openly gave my copy of The Human Stain the stink-eye for littering my TBR shelf. Yet, I’m also addicted to lists (for reasons I’m still trying to work out, seriously, in therapy), and decided to give it a shot — after all, I didn’t hate the film, and I really liked the beginning of the book when it landed on my desk about four years ago.
Fast forward a few years. As I’m trying to clear off my shelves before bringing any more new books into the fold, I took The Human Stain OFF the giant TBR shelf and moving it to the bedside table. And am I ever glad that I did (how many of my book reviews start out this way? With my preconceived and often wrong perspectives of the various books on my shelves?).
In short, I loved this book.
The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman “Silky” Silk, a semi-retired Classics professor is forced into full retirement over the disgrace after using the word “spooks” (meant as ghosts; read as racist). The novel’s narrator, a writer who hides up in the hills of this small Massachusetts town, slowly reveals the deep, and shaded, history of this broken man. An odd friendship between the two develops as Coleman’s disgrace becomes at once both unbearably personal and utterly absurd at the same time. No one, least of all the woman who was married to him for years, and who subsequently died during the whole fiasco, knows the truth about the man — (and if you’ve seen the movie this isn’t a spoiler, if you haven’t then SPOILER) that he’s actually black and has been passing as a white, Jewish man for over 40 years.
At 71, Coleman has found a renewed interest in life post-incident in the relationship he’s been having with 34-year-old Faunia, a janitor at the university who lives at a dairy farm, milking the cows to pay for her rent. Damaged by a disastrous relationship with her ex-husband, who has severe PTSD after returning home from Vietnam, Faunia is also coping with the tragic losses of her two children who died in a fire.
No one escapes untouched in Roth’s world, characters are flawed, ashamed, damaged, destroyed, suffer physically, mentally, anguish over all kinds of things, and yet, in this novel it all works. At first, I thought he really didn’t like women, when I read that Faunia was molested, illiterate and beaten, I did roll my eyes a little — but then as you go deeper in the novel, she’s actually one of the stronger characters. Sure she makes up lies to get through the day, but who doesn’t. And sure she hasn’t had a very nice life, but she also doesn’t make excuses for herself. Regardless, their relationship seems almost redemptive in a way, for both of them. Which means, of course, SPOILER, that drastic, awful things must happen.
The narrative structure of the novel is simple — a writer tells the story of Coleman’s life, so close sometimes that we forget he’s even there — and that leaves way for Roth’s complex and rich sentences to pull you deeply into the lives of these characters. It’s an effective, literary novel, one that rewards the reader by the quality of the writing and not just simply by the essence of the story, if that makes sense. All in all, the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list didn’t let me down this time. But Roth’s still one-for-one: I’m still not convinced he’s entirely an author for me.
READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books.