The Human Stain is a diegesis of deceit and pain, lulling us into premature character judgement, only to turn the tables on us by switching perspectives and evoking sympathy for whom we reviled a few pages earlier. Philip Roth masterfully weaves in and out of the lives of his characters, furthering the story one subtly-remembered incident at a time. Coleman Silk is the seventy-one year old dean of faculty and a classics professor in New England, when he is forced out for uttering what is misconstrued as a racial slur against African-Americans. His friends betray him, his faculty abandons him and in despair he quits. His despair is wholly and unremarkably imbued with his rage at being a victim of an innocent misunderstanding. He finds solace in the arms, and bed, of Faunia Farley, a thirty-four year old farmhand, and regains some of his lost composure in life.
Faunia is strange, a victim of life in every way possible, ground down beneath the crushing wheels of circumstance to emerge as a granite-hard example of a woman who jettisons all the ballast in life and knows exactly what she wants. From childhood incestual abuse to being beaten into a coma by abuse ex-husbands, she is a survivor, a grim woman who lets nothing get her down. Her ex-husband Les, the man who regularly beat her up when they were together is a textbook case of Vietnam-era shell-shock. He was an easygoing small-town kid who liked girls and fast cars and hot dogs and movies, and then he got drafted. When the guys in his regiment lopped off the ears of Vietnamese peasants as trophies, he kept up. When they slit the bellies of pregnant women for fun, he kept up. The end result is a damaged man, more at home gunning down innocents from his gunship above the rice paddies than working as part of a road crew in bucolic New England. These colourful characters are but secondary to Coleman’s biggest secret, a secret he has kept all his life at the cost of some of the most elemental relationships a human being can have.
I hesitate to give the ending away, since you really should read this book. Some might say it’s too violent, or that the scenes described herein are too graphic, but one must also remember that these things really happened, at least as far the Vietnam war and its debilitating effects on veterans goes. Definitely a great read, very visceral and one that has you unraveling the complex interplay between the characters with some quality prose.