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BookReview: The Human Stain

The Human Stain

Book by Philip Roth

This is my first Roth book, which is a little embarrassing since he’s considered by some to be the greatest living American writer. The Human Stain is supposed to be among his best, and it is a well-crafted work of great skill: about a black man who lives as a white, turfed from his professorship for uttering a racist slur (a false accusation and a witch hunt), who recedes into bitterness and starts an affair with a younger (he’s 72; she’s 34), illiterate cleaning woman. Things end badly. A violent ex-husband, a truck, and a lake are all involved. In the back-drop, Clinton-Lewinsky (with parallels to the older Coleman Silk and the younger Faunia Farley) surfaces and resurfaces, and provides the political grounding of the novel, a campus morality tale where those most harshly judged are the petty faux-puritains maurauding around the quiet college town, and indeed the whole country.

Roth didn’t quite catch me with this book: it seems very much rooted in its time (1998, when the President’s offences involved fellatio and cigars, and not dubious wars), though there was much more in there, among other things: race relations, violence, Vietnam, the Greeks, the lies we tell ourselves and those closest to us. But something felt forced, the allegorical structure a little too present, a little too solid. Still, a master craftsman, to be admired.

My rating: 3.5 stars