Philip Roth's The Human Stain packs a wallop like few novels can deliver. The book opens by suggesting an interesting, but modest story:
It was the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk -- who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty -- confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.
But just when you think it is going to be a typical ivory tower novel about the late-in-life sexual adventures of a second rate academic, Roth plunges the story into never-expected depths. Colman Silk's life is built on a lie. His lover is illiterate. Her ex-husband is a whacked-out Vietnam vet. And Silk's professional nemesis throws a metaphorical hand grenade into the middle of all of it.
Roth uses the story to explore all the big, close-to-the-bone issues: sexuality, racial identity, religion, education, family affiliation, mental illness, love, and grief – all the things that leave a human stain. It's a book that leaves you gasping. You don't just finish it; you recover from it.
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NOTESThis would have been my "favorite book" of 2010, except that I finished the last 50 pages on New Year's Day. It's too early to say, but it may qualify as my favorite book of 2011 as well, in which case it would deserve the double commendation.