Witch Hunt, Roth Style 

If you were recently fatigued by the sight of Henry Hyde, Asa Hutchinson, and the rest of the House lynch mob out to sack Bill Clinton, or if you are generally weary of contemporary America's morality police -- our New Puritans -- you have an ally, Philip Roth.

Mr. Roth's latest novel, The Human Stain, devotes just a few of its pages to the impeachment debacle of '98-'99. But that's enough to set the tone of political correctness with its attendant self-serving rabidity.

"It was the summer when a president's penis was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America."

Our latest victim is Professor Coleman Silk, a 71-year-old professor of classics at Athena, a prestigious private New England college.

He climbs to the top of Athena's power structure, and after reigning for years as the powerful Dean of the Faculty, returns to the classroom at age 71 to end his career as it began, teaching Homer to America's privileged.

His happy ending is anything but.

Five weeks into the semester, two students have not yet appeared for Silk's storied course. He calls roll, gets no response from these two, and asks aloud, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?"

Yes, the absent students are black, and the remark, seen as a racial slur, triggers a backlash of political correctness spearheaded by a young feminist professor, Delphine Roux. Silk discovers he's made enemies along the way, and when no one rushes to his aid, he resigns.

His wife dies soon thereafter, and he is convinced that Athena's puritanical conspirators are the indirect cause. He can't tell the story himself -- Coleman has a secret, you see -- so he seeks out his neighbor, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, and asks him to write a book about it.

At first, Nathan declines. But slowly he is enamoured of Silk's biography -- and virility. Silk is having a highly sexualized, post-marital fling with a 34-year-old janitor, Faunia Farley, whose second job is milking cows at a nearby dairy farm.

Half his age and thought to be illiterate, Faunia has had it rough. Sexually abused by her stepfather and beaten by her always volatile Vietnam veteran husband, she is also hounded by guilt over the death of her two children. The children were asphyxiated by a gas leak in the apartment, undetected by Mom because she was having oral sex in a parked car outside at the time.

Silk's prurience just won't do for Professor Roux. Faunia is easy prey. Roux sends Silk an anonymous note: "Everyone knows you're sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age."

To make things more interesting, Silk's secret is that he is not who he appears to be, a fact leading to his ultimate demise.

This is the Mr. Roth's third recent novel utilizing the framework story motif. As in American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain has narrator Zuckerman (Roth's long-time stand in) as confidant to someone destroyed while pursuing the American Dream. Again, Zuckerman gets only part of the story from the protagonist, so he dons an investigator's cap to get at the rest. Fiction fills in unknowable details, which he admits with humor but without apology:

"How do I know she knew? I don't. I couldn't know that either. I can't know. 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."

Although imperfect, The Human Stain is engaging, topical, and well worth your time. Some of the characters are too like caricatures, particularly Vietnam vet Les Farley. Others are made to do the implausible, as when Delphine Roux throws a stupid temper tantrum late in the novel that looks more like Mr. Roth's fantasy of how a feminist like Roux would respond to his own maleness.

But the novel is a cornucopia of contemporary issues -- the tension political correctness has with the First Amendment; the decline of the American university; the search for identity in a moralizing culture; the distortion of truth for personal gain.

And Mr. Roth continues to write in the American literary tradition of which he is a permanent part. He adds to the canon his views on the search for the American self. He continues to define narrative point of view through Zuckerman, though Zuckerman's reliability as narrator is an issue here.

And finally there's "the human stain" itself. We are all morally fallible, and we always have been, from the ancient Greeks to contemporary Americans. And it is this indelibility of fallibility that, to Mr. Roth, makes "the fantasy of purity ... appalling."

-- Andrew Gorgey is a deputy district attorney and a writer. He also teaches law to undergraduates at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.


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