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Sunday, May 21, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Stain' could be better

Special to The Seattle Times

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"The Human Stain"

by Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, $26

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How close to genius can Philip Roth get? Not close enough.

Word for word, Roth has been one of our best writers for decades, although his early novels were considered either too adolescent ("Portnoy's Complaint") or autobiographical (the Zuckerman trilogy) to be truly great. If only he had a subject worthy of his talents, it was thought. Now he does, and the accolades pour in.

Unfortunately, few critics have bothered to check if his writing talents are still in place.

"The Human Stain" is the third leg of a loose trilogy that began with 1997's Vietnam War-era novel "American Pastoral," and continued a year later with "I Married a Communist," about the reactionary 1950s.

Like both of those novels, "Stain" is narrated by Roth's alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, living out his twilight years in New England, and it concerns another tumultuous, although more recent, period in American history. Against the backdrop of the Clinton / Lewinsky scandal, when, as Zuckerman writes, "the smallness of people was simply crushing," Coleman Silk, a Jewish professor of Classics at Athena College, is hounded from his post.

Two of his students haven't shown up by the fifth week of the semester and Coleman asks his class, "Do they exist or are they spooks?" Both students turn out to be African American and complain; and since the Classics Department is run by Professor Delphine Roux, a Frenchwoman who is a complex mix of vanity and insecurity, and since Coleman has made his enemies over the years, and since - Roth seems to suggest - this brand of political correctness is to 1990s college campuses as Red-baiting was to the McCarthyite `50s, the case drags on for years. When Coleman's wife suddenly dies, he blames the scandal and demands that Zuckerman, the great writer, tell his story.

Eventually, Coleman, 71, becomes involved with Faunia Farley, a college janitor half his age; but even this last stab at happiness cannot be condoned in puritanical America, for Coleman receives a threatening letter: "Everyone knows you're sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age." A greater threat comes from Faunia's ex-husband, Les, a Vietnam Vet who blames her for the death of their children.

Part of the brilliance of "The Human Stain" is that Roth gets into the heads of not only Zuckerman and Coleman, but Faunia and Les Farley, and Delphine Roux, so that, even when their actions are reprehensible or criminal, we understand the logic behind their actions. Faunia is more intelligent than everyone thinks, while Delphine Roux comes across as surprisingly sympathetic, because many of her faults are our own. Not bad for a writer who has long been accused of misogyny.

But what truly recommends the book is when we get into Coleman's past. His secret turns this world - and our own - on its head. Coleman's secret is a deeper comment on the century we just left, and it could have made "The Human Stain" Roth's greatest novel.

Unfortunately, Roth isn't half the writer he used to be. His humor is gone, he has replaced dialogue with diatribe and he repeats himself endlessly in overly academic harangues. An example:

"Besides, (Zuckerman writes) from the evidence at hand, there was nothing so crafty or contrived about a typical Delphinian intrigue - hers smacked of hasty improvisation, of hysterical pettiness, of the overexcited unthinking of the amateur that produces the kind of wacky act that seems improbable afterward even to its perpetrator: the counterattack that lacks both provocation and the refined calculation of the acidic master, however nasty its consequences may be."

What's awful about the above is that we didn't need any of it. Roth had already shown us what Delphine Roux was like; we didn't need Zuckerman to then tell us.

Which raises a point: What, exactly, are the editors at Houghton Mifflin getting paid for? Think how great this novel could have been if its prose was more economical. What MBA is running that company?

"The Human Stain" is still worth reading, of course, because it encompasses so much of what is right and wrong with our country. Better edited, it would have been worth reading 100 years from now.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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