Editor reviews

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 Everyman, The 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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It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished even his most virulent accuser.
Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for 50 years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk's secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled. And to understand also how Silk's astonishing private history is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, "magnificently" interwoven with "the larger public history of modern America."
As an added bonus, when you purchase our Audible Modern Vanguard production of Philip Roth's book, you'll also receive an exclusive Jim Atlas interview. This interview – where James Atlas interviews Judith Thurman about the life and work of Philip Roth – begins as soon as the audiobook ends.
©2001 Philip Roth (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
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Critic reviews

"In American literature today, there's Philip Roth, and then there's everybody else." ( Chicago Tribune)
“By turns unnerving, hilarious, and sad…. It is a book that shows how the public zeitgeist can shape, even destroy, an individual’s life…. Not only a philosophic bookend to American Pastoral but a large and stirring book as well. ( The New York Times)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Guinnevere on 19-02-13

Less Dramatic than the Title Implies

The title, and Roth's prestige, had me thinking this was going to be an extremely heavy-handed novel and was actually relieved when I found the plot and the characters deep enough to swim in but not be drowned by. I thought about them long after I finished the book and I found it all to be paced very nicely. I had no trouble getting into the story at its start and then when I realized it was about something entirely different than I had first supposed I was hooked. I know this review may be a little abstract but I don't want to mislead or give anything away. This book is a window into a time and place--a life much like any other where ordinary things happen and the main characters and the society we share with them are what are fascinating--not some epic drama about a Big Event.

I did not find the academic parts of this book pretentious or inaccessible because it seemed Roth was pointing an almost self-deprecating finger at institutionalized education. He did this both through the narrator's character--which was one of literary accomplishment and social seclusion--and also through his unfavorable depiction of (some) university politics.

Anyway, that's not what makes this story wonderful nor at all what it is about. It brings questions of identity gently to the surface through dark water and then suddenly yanks them free for all to see and poke at and inquire upon--all while maintaining this conspiratorial relationship between the narrator and the reader, as if we are the only ones in on the secret and must ponder our own choices and identities alone.

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13 of 13 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By CHET YARBROUGH on 08-12-14


Figuratively, Phillip Roth skins an onion in his book, The Human Stain. He exposes the insidious nature of discrimination in a story about a college professor’s life.

In a Buddhist’ way, Roth’s story stings the eyes of wisdom and the material world. The Human Stain offers layers of truth about human nature; Roth gives examples like President Clinton’s contretemps with Monica Lewinsky; stories of a “free” but tainted press; the many forms of discrimination, and incidents of female sexual exploitation. Each peel of the onion reveals a layer of stinging truth about human beings in a material world.

By the end of The Human Stain, one is reminded of the biblical phrase, “he who is without sin can cast the first stone”. Roth’s story infers every lie (and we are all liars) leaves a stain; every human experience leaves an imprint, some of which are stains; others, the building blocks of life.

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12 of 12 people found this review helpful

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