370 words •

The Human Stain

The Human Stain

Listening to The Human Stain completely transformed my assessment of Philip Roth’s recent novels. The last decade has featured several stunning, dark mediations on death and aging like EverymanThe Humbling, and Exit Ghost. Parts of The Human Stain drift into the same, brooding territory. But the audio version of this novel reminded me that Roth has not lost his pitch-black sense of humor. He still loves being the literary lightening rod, a role he’s relished ever since the 1969 release of his still-shocking book, Portnoy’s Complaint. Larry David, Woody Allen, Richard Lewis, and Lewis Black should be required by law to write royalty checks to Roth.

Dennis Boutsikaris’ performance of The Human Stain captures this frantic, stand-up comedian side of Roth. His precise, sometimes-shrill tone perfectly matches the worst-case scenarios imagined by Roth and the maniacal monologues produced by such incidents – or sometimes merely the thought of such incidents taking place. Roth remains one of the best complainers on the plant. Nobody knows how to go off on something or someone like a well-written Roth character.

But what elevates The Human Stain from being a sitcom about a disgraced college professor to a modern masterpiece is the genuine affection Roth feels for his characters. Professor Coleman Silk could have easily been a punchline in the hands of a less-skilled writer. Same goes for Silk’s nemesis, Professor Delphine Roux, or the two great passions of Silk’s life: his All-American sweetheart Steena Palsson and Faunia Farley, an illiterate janitor at Athena College, an idyllic New England institution where Silk taught for decades before uttering a single, misinterpreted word. Luckily, Roth and his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who narrates the novel, clearly love these flawed characters.

Roth’s not alone. Americans love learning about the seamier sides of people’s lives. Roth intuitively understands this tabloid-like obsession. That’s why he wisely revolves the plot of The Human Stain around a shocking secret Silk has been harboring for over five decades. That’s why Roth remains the best, living American writer. He knows how to tap into everything amazing and unseemly about our society, sometimes even in the same sentence. –Ken Ross

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