Houghton Mifflin, 2000, 352 pages
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 fifty 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."
Cross-posted to bookish and books1001.
Philip Roth is one of those big freakin' deals who wins tons of awards and is described in superlatives as a God of American Literature. This was my first Philip Roth novel, assigned to me by the books1001 random novel generator.
Roth impressed me with his command of English and his ability to put together a complicated psychological profile of multiple characters in block-paragraph navel-gazing excess. It also felt like being hit over the head with just how Important and Literary Philip Roth is and how he has Very Important Things to Say about political correctness and politics and sexuality, but he also wants you to know that he has a mighty penis.
I haven't read a book that dropped this many gratuitous references to penises/semen/blow jobs since my last Haruki Murakami novel.
The story begins with Coleman Silk, a Jewish classics professor at Athena College, former Dean of the faculty and a man greatly respected and with enormous influence at the college and in the community, being accused of racism. During one of his classes, five weeks into the semester, he notes the names of two students who have never attended class, and says, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist, or are they spooks?"
Unbeknownst to him, the students he is referring to are black. They hear about his question and file a complaint, claiming that he deliberately used a racial epithet in reference to them.
Since Silk was also responsible for firing a lot of deadweight professors and he's now The Establishment, naturally he has enemies, and wagons get circled, battle lines are formed, knives come out, and the vicious, petty academic infighting would all pretty much come to nothing because the bottom line is that Dean Silk has tenure and there is fuck-all they can really do to him, except that he resigns in outrage and pretty much goes into a meltdown of rage and indignation. His wife dies of a stroke during the ensuing scandal, and he becomes bitter, angry, and obsessive, convinced that "they" (the university, the community, everyone who turned on him) killed her.
And then in the nature of Important Literary Books by Important Literary Dudes, (former) Dean Silk discovers the revitalizing power of poontang. Faunia Farley is a 34-year-old illiterate woman who works as a janitor at Athena College (among her other two jobs). Her two children died a few years ago in a fire. She has a violent, abusive ex-husband who is a PTSD-maddened Vietnam Vet. Obviously the perfect lover for a 70-year-old recently widowed classics professor. Coleman Silk's life thus turns into its very own Greek tragedy. (Yes, Roth is a clever fellow. He wants to make sure we know how clever he is, so he even has the characters make ironic references to the irony.)
In the nature of a Greek tragedy, there is an even more bitter twist to this story. What follows is a slight spoiler, but it's revealed pretty early, and since it's really what the book is about, I can't really talk about the rest of the book without mentioning it:
Coleman Silk is actually a black man who has been passing as a white man his entire adult life - to such an extreme degree that he told his wife that his parents were dead and he had no siblings. His own wife and children do not know that he did not grow up a white Jewish boy from New Jersey.
Oh, you so ironic, Philip Roth!
While one might feel sorry for Coleman Silk, he is not a nice person, and Roth doesn't try to make him likeable, though he does make him sympathetic. Each of his children was born white (which is to say, they pass as white, with no evidence of their black heredity), and Silk both dreads and revels in each of their births, rolling the dice and daring the Fates to expose him. He accepts the risk as the price he paid for choosing the path he did, but it's all about him. His marriage is sexless and mostly loveless towards the end, his children are estranged from him, and he knows very well that if one of his white daughters has a black baby, she's going to have a hell of a time explaining that to her white husband. But that's hardly the worst of his betrayals, since when he decided to marry his white, Jewish wife, he went to his own mother and basically disowned her. It's a long, heart-breaking sequence in which he says little and his mother does all the talking. She will never know her grandchildren, and Silk sits there pondering grandly the epic burden and pain and guilt he has chosen to bear so that he can be free of being "colored." He is the stuff of Greek tragedy; see him suffer.
On the one hand, this makes Silk's breakdown more understandable and Roth's portrayal of him is brilliantly done: you can completely see how this brilliant, accomplished man, a former undefeated boxer who became a college professor, and has, it turns out, built his entire life on a lie, comes apart when everything he has worked for his entire life is turned against him. His anger, his inability to understand how the students and his colleagues could be so stupid, his feeling as if he shouldn't have to defend himself while also being unable to defend himself -- I will not deny that Roth wrote a brilliant, epically tormented character in Coleman Silk.
But seriously, a white Jewish guy writing a black man who passes as a white Jewish guy as a device to comment on political correctness and racial issues and the ridiculousness of academia? During the many pages-long speeches in which each and every one of his characters are able to talk in long, verbose monologues, Coleman Silk's sister (a teacher herself, whom he had not seen in years) gives a little Cosby-like speech about how black folks need to stop acting the fool. And if that isn't a little bit sketchy, I am not kidding about all the extra doses of penis.
"That's what comes of being hand-raised," said Faunia. "That's what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The human stain," she said, and without revulsion or contempt or condemnation. Not even with sadness. That's how it is - in her own dry way, that is all Faunia was telling the girl feeding the snake: we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen - there's no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It's in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. Without the sign it is there. The stain so intrinsic it doesn't require a mark. The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It's why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It's insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity? All she was saying about the stain was that it's inescapable. That, naturally, would be Faunia's take on it: the inevitably stained creatures that we are. Reconciled to the horrible, elemental imperfection. She's like the Greeks, like Coleman's Greeks. Like their gods. They're petty. They quarrel. They fight. They hate. They murder. They fuck. All Zeus ever wants to do is fuck - goddesses, mortals, heifers, she-bears - and not merely in his own form but, even more excitingly, as himself made manifest as beast. To hugely mount a woman as a bull. To enter her bizarrely as a flailing white swan. There is never enough flesh for the king of the gods or enough perversity. All the craziness desire brings. The dissoluteness. The depravity. The crudest pleasures. And the fury from the all-seeing wife. Not the Hebrew God, infinitely alone, infinitely obscure, monomaniacally the only god there is, was, and always will be, with nothing better to do than worry about Jews. And not the perfectly desexualized Christian man-god and his uncontaminated mother and all the guilt and shame that an exquisite unearthliness inspires. Instead the Greek Zeus, entangled in adventures, vividly expressive, capricious, sensual, exuberantly wedded to his own rich existence, anything but alone and anything but hidden. Instead, the divine stain. A great reality-reflecting religion for Faunia Farley if, through Coleman, she'd known anything about it. As the hubristic fantasy has it, made in the image of God, all right, but not ours - theirs. God debauched. God corrupted. A god of life if ever there was one. God in the image of man.
Yes, everyone in the book talks (or thinks) in big pretentious paragraphs like that. The prose is brilliant at times, but I did not believe that anyone, even a classics professor, could really go on like that for pages at a time. This is a very literary novel, and at the same time a quite earthy one. There is sex. There is violence. There is tragedy. There is a whole lot of author wanking. Coleman Silk may be a black man, but you can also see more than a shade of Philip Roth in him. He's totally the best at everything he's ever done, he scored with all the chicks as a younger man, and now that he's a Philip Roth-aged widower, women half his age want to fuck him.
Like the secondary character Delphine Roux, a daughter of ultra-privileged Parisian leftists, whom Coleman Silk hired as a young professor while he was Dean, and who turns on him, taking one of the accusing students under her wing, and basically goes on a crusade against him. There are many pages devoted to Roux's neurotic introspection and overthinking of every single thing she does. She's a shallow caricature of an over-achieving froo-froo academic, and she gets her just humiliation when she accidentally emails a rough draft of an incredibly pretentious Internet dating profile to her entire department, and basically outs herself as being infatuated with... oh, take a wild guess. Her story arc ends with her literally throwing herself down and screaming hysterically over Silk's death.
There seems to be absolutely no point to Delphine Roux's character except to mock the poor empty thing who aspires to pit her silly little ladybrain against Coleman Silk and his penis, and while she provided the only humor in the entire book, after reading it I was more than half-convinced that Roth was grinding an axe against some real person, possibly either an ex or someone who turned him down for a fuck.
Anthony Hopkins looks mighty white
I did not even remember that this book had been made into a movie, but I duly Netflixed the 2003 film starring Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk and Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farley. Anthony Hopkins makes for a very, very white black man, and Nicole Kidman is a little too glamorous as an uneducated cleaning woman who's spent her entire life being abused, but Gary Sinise and Ed Harris are both excellent in their parts.
I don't have much good or bad to say about the movie. It's well done, the actors do a fine job, it's a pretty faithful adaptation, but devoid of Roth's prose and added context, it's not really that interesting. It's missing all the ironic touches and Roth's sardonic humor that lent the novel its wit. Classics professor gets unfairly accused of racism, blows a gasket, starts screwing a younger woman, and after he dies it's revealed through flashbacks that he's actually a black man. It was better when Roth wrote it, semen references and all.
Verdict: A literary novel. A very dudely literary novel. Like most such novels I have read, I appreciated the craftsmanship of the author's writing, and found the story mildly interesting and the characters more so, but it was tedious to get all the way to the end, especially with the authorial penis looming large over the pages. I am not as impressed by Philip Roth and his penis as I think I'm supposed to be. I feel no urge whatsoever to go read another Philip Roth novel. Does this book deserve to be on the list of 1001 books you must read before you die? Well, give him his due, Philip Roth is a real writer, so you should probably read at least one book by him, and now I have. And I think that's enough.
This was my ninth assignment for the books1001 challenge.