Cool, Olympian Roth Dazzles, Life-Size Protagonist Fizzles

The Human Stain , by Philip Roth. Houghton Mifflin, 361 pages, $26.

Once, over a staticky radio in a bouncing taxi on a back road in Egypt, I heard what I could only guess to be a concert by one of the country’s star vocalists. On and on, the man yodeled and keened, winding gorgeous passages without taking a breath. And as the passages got longer and longer–they seemed to surpass human endurance–the audience went wild, then wilder. How could any mortal sustain, let alone keep topping, such glory?

This is what Philip Roth’s writing reminds me of. The passages get more and more brilliant–so brilliant you can’t stand it anymore–and then he goes himself one better. Whether he’s giving you America’s bygone glove-making industry down to its most minute particular (which works like gangbusters on both concrete and metaphorical levels), or parsing to a fare-thee-well the vagaries of the human heart, he is, word for word, paragraph for paragraph, Mozartean, simply unsurpassable.

Why, then, does his latest novel leave me so cold? Unfortunately titled, The Human Stain is the close of the trilogy whose first two installments were American Pastoral and I Married a Communist . The common thread is American turmoil over the last 50 years, as witnessed by Mr. Roth’s eternal stand-in, novelist Nathan Zuckerman. Now in his mid-60′s, after a long and turbulent life of sex-craziness, Zuckerman is self-exiled to a monastic two-room shack somewhere in the Berkshires. Poor Zuckerman, we soon learn, is a survivor not only of a quintuple bypass but of prostate-cancer surgery that has left him both impotent and incontinent. He wears a plastic diaper with disposable cotton pads. So much for sex.

And, in a very real way, so much for Zuckerman. Long gone is the naughty bouncing brio that informed My Life as a Man ; what we have in late Roth is a narrator who, like a tale-teller out of Conrad, exists more as a receptacle for others’ stories than an onstage actor. In the somewhat awkwardly structured American Pastoral , Zuckerman does a quick fade a quarter of the way into the book, smack in the middle of his 45th high school reunion, after ushering on his hero, the godlike Weequahic High School jock Seymour Swede Levov. In I Married a Communist , the setup is simpler, if more far-fetched: At Tanglewood, Nathan encounters Murray Ringold, his old Weequahic English teacher, and invites him back to the shack, where, Scheherezade-like, Murray unfolds over six nights the tale of his late brother, the giant, doomed, left-wing 40′s radio star Iron Rinn.

Both Levov and Rinn (né Ira Ringold) are golems: outsized Jersey Jews–6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6, respectively–whom Mr. Roth tries mightily to animate, but who ultimately feel more like myths than men. Alex Portnoy and the early Zuckerman were Leopold Bloom-ish in their messy humanity: We could feel for them right down to the kishkas . So strongly did their furies and demons and lusts seem to be Mr. Roth’s own that we identified and stayed tuned. Swede and Iron, the big guys, stagger through their crises living statue-fashion, then topple with a mighty crash. Their monumentality is both the power and the weakness of the trilogy’s first two books.

In The Human Stain , Mr. Roth has (more prudently but less successfully) chosen a life-size protagonist, wiry 71-year-old college professor Coleman Silk: “a neat, attractive package of a man even at his age, the small-nosed Jewish type with the facial heft in the jaw, one of those crimped-haired Jews of a light yellowish skin pigmentation who possess something of the ambiguous aura of the pale blacks who are sometimes taken for white.”

This last phrase, we quickly learn, is a signal flare. For we soon discover that Silk–who has been forced out of his position as dean of students at the Bennington-like Athena College for making an offhand comment in class which, in the tinder-like politically correct atmosphere of modern American academia, is absurdly interpreted as racist– is in fact black: His whole life has been a lie and a masquerade. But neither his ouster nor his deception dooms him. Sex does. Thanks to the magic of Viagra, about which Mr. Roth has piercingly funny things to say (“Without Viagra … I could continue to draw profound philosophical conclusions and have a steadying moral influence on the young, instead of having put myself back into the perpetual state of emergency that is sexual intoxication. Thanks to Viagra I’ve come to understand Zeus’s amorous transformations. That’s what they should have called Viagra. They should have called it Zeus”), Silk is engaged in an ill-starred, ill-advised affair with a 34-year-old college custodian named, Perelmanically, Faunia Farley. Faunia is a kind of caricatured culmination of a long line of blond Roth shiksas: spectacularly hapless, mentally acute but functionally illiterate and (it goes almost without saying) genius in bed.

The couple’s nemesis is Faunia’s ex-husband, Les Farley, a Vietnam vet so badly screwed up by his time in-country that the neat rubric of post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t begin to hint at the snake pit of his consciousness. Les’ internal ravings give the book its most bravura passages, as Mr. Roth’s lingering anger over the national damage wrought by the undeclared war attains a white heat.

It’s difficult to know what to make of all this. American Pastoral and I Married a Communist were essentially monochrome canvases, keenly capturing the respective madnesses of the Vietnam and McCarthy eras. The Human Stain starts pungently enough, with a crisp pencil sketch of the weird summer of ’98: “[I]n America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism–which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country’s security–was succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten 21-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America’s oldest communal passion … the ecstasy of sanctimony.” But while the dust-jacket copy huffs importantly about “public denunciation and rituals of purification,” Mr. Roth doesn’t manage to give Coleman Silk’s story the epic weight of the rest of the trilogy. Maybe it’s because the Clinton saga is too recent and insufficiently jelled to serve as a template. Maybe it’s that Monicagate hasn’t really produced anything like actual casualties. Least of all the President himself. It is Bill Clinton’s very survival, that weird, obstinate resilience (symbolized, somehow, by his own facial heft in the jaw), that militates against a Nixonian depth of tragedy.

Another problem is that the as-told-to style points up Roth’s chilliness as a writer. There are only two scenes in The Human Stain that have what feels like real, high-stakes human contact–a nicely strange one in the beginning, where Zuckerman dances with Silk, and a nicely scary one at the end, where the narrator confronts the dangerous Les Farley. The rest is seen through a glass, coolly.

Many years ago, J. D. Salinger’s most famous character, Holden Caulfield, delivered himself of a naïve but appealing rule of thumb: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” I’ve always been in awe of Mr. Roth’s gifts, but have never had the slightest inclination to call him up. His books lack sweetness and enchantment; and lately, more critically, they lack love. It’s terribly unfair of me, I know, but his real-life childlessness seems to contribute to a certain aridity. Zuckerman’s withdrawal from the world feels a bit too close to home.

Piercingly, defiantly heavy-browed, Philip Roth glares out from his dust-jacket photos like an Old Testament prophet, super-serious, admonishing. He is a colossus. But as he himself has shown us about giants, the air gets thin up there.