Deposition for a Master

Deposition for a Master

The Human Stain
by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 2000, 365 pp., $26

What Philip Roth has always needed—and what, like Joseph K., he has been unfairly denied—is a proper trial. If not for the attacks on Jewish suburbia in Goodbye, Columbus or for what Irving Howe called the “rhetorical flourishes surrounding masturbation” in Portnoy’s Complaint, then surely for the salacious, twenty-one-page, phone-sex footnote in Sabbath’s Theater. He deserves a trial, at long last, with lawyers and learned professors, like the ones James Joyce and even Allen Ginsberg got. And he could use, as well, an urbane, sophisticated judge, like the one who included in his decision allowing Ulysses into the country a section almost wholly devoted to literary criticism: “Furthermore,” it began, “‘Ulysses’ is an amazing tour de force.”

A trial for Philip Roth! For only such a spectacle, with its twenty-four-hour television coverage and solemn New York Times editorials, could clear his name at last of the accusation of unseriousness. It is an old accusation, and one can almost feel Roth straining against it in his last three novels, which comprise together a loose trilogy about postwar American politics. Near the beginning of The Human Stain, the final book in the trilogy, there is a scene in which a bereaved Coleman Silk, former dean of nearby Athena College, rushes to Nathan Zuckerman’s secluded house and begins to pound upon the door. He demands that Zuckerman write the story of his downfall. “I—whose house he had never before entered,” Zuckerman recounts, “whose very voice he had barely heard before—had to put aside whatever else I might be doing and write about. . .his enemies.” This is not the first time the author has been so importuned, and initially he declines, only to take the narrative reins after Silk has been murdered. Though it arrives late, the encounter is a perfect symbolic introduction to these three novels: America, “the American berserk,” is pounding on Roth’s door, demanding that he do her justice on the printed page. Roth is hesitant, for he has some favorite subjects of his own to cover, but what sort of writer would he be—what sort of man, even—if he refused?

So there is a slightly put-upon quality to Roth’s treatment of historical themes, as if, though acceding to the status of a Major Novelist, he will not observe the conventions, whatever those might be. Having had at sixties ultra-radicalism and postwar communism in the previous two novels, Roth in The Human Stain reconstructs the story of seventy-one-year-old Coleman Silk, a light-skinned black man who decided, when young, to pass for white, and who is eventually hounded from his deanship for an allegedly racist comment. The pressure of the battle with the university leads to his wife’s death from a stroke and the...

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