Listening to The Human Stain completely transformed my assessment of Philip Roth's recent novels. The last decade has featured several stunning, dark mediations on death and aging like Everyman, The Humbling, and Exit Ghost. Parts of The Human Stain drift into the same, brooding territory. But the audio version of this novel reminded me that Roth has not lost his pitch-black sense of humor. He still loves being the literary lightening rod, a role he's relished ever since the 1969 release of his still-shocking book, Portnoy's Complaint. Larry David, Woody Allen, Richard Lewis, and Lewis Black should be required by law to write royalty checks to Roth.
Dennis Boutsikaris' performance of The Human Stain captures this frantic, stand-up comedian side of Roth. His precise, sometimes-shrill tone perfectly matches the worst-case scenarios imagined by Roth and the maniacal monologues produced by such incidents – or sometimes merely the thought of such incidents taking place. Roth remains one of the best complainers on the plant. Nobody knows how to go off on something or someone like a well-written Roth character.
But what elevates The Human Stain from being a sitcom about a disgraced college professor to a modern masterpiece is the genuine affection Roth feels for his characters. Professor Coleman Silk could have easily been a punchline in the hands of a less-skilled writer. Same goes for Silk's nemesis, Professor Delphine Roux, or the two great passions of Silk's life: his All-American sweetheart Steena Palsson and Faunia Farley, an illiterate janitor at Athena College, an idyllic New England institution where Silk taught for decades before uttering a single, misinterpreted word. Luckily, Roth and his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who narrates the novel, clearly love these flawed characters.
Roth's not alone. Americans love learning about the seamier sides of people's lives. Roth intuitively understands this tabloid-like obsession. That's why he wisely revolves the plot of The Human Stain around a shocking secret Silk has been harboring for over five decades. That's why Roth remains the best, living American writer. He knows how to tap into everything amazing and unseemly about our society, sometimes even in the same sentence. –Ken Ross
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 50 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."
As an added bonus, when you purchase any of our Audible Modern Vanguard productions of Phillip Roth's books, you'll also get the exclusive Jim Atlas interview below added to your library.
This production is part of our Audible Modern Vanguard line, a collection of important works from groundbreaking authors.
©2001 Philip Roth; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
"In American literature today, there's Philip Roth, and then there's everybody else." (Chicago Tribune)
“By turns unnerving, hilarious, and sad…. It is a book that shows how the public zeitgeist can shape, even destroy, an individual’s life…. Not only a philosophic bookend to American Pastoral but a large and stirring book as well. (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times)
"Philip Roth's The Human Stain is the best novel he has written—not to devalue the past. Here, everything the writer has learnt and experienced within that indefinable form we call the novel, the impact of society on himself and the people around him, world contemporary mores, beliefs, prejudices, have come to full realization." (Nadine Gordimer, The Times Literary Supplement (International Book of the Year Selection)
I will admit that I found myself intrigued by the story of Coleman Silk, and the manner in which his colorful past influenced his entire life. However, I was turned off by how frequently Philip Roth gets lost. He is a writer who is clearly too in love with his vocabulary and descriptive abilities, and therefore finds it imperative to describe even minor details to an almost-nauseating degree. This happens so frequently that I found myself having gone from one plot point to another without having any idea how I got there. There is also a large amount of repetition involved with his descriptions, as Roth often finds it necessary to take a single subject and compare it to five or six other subjects in a single, breathless burst. Another example of this can be found in dialogue. I can accept that college professors and novelists, such as Coleman and Nathan, respectively, will converse using florid phrases and turns of speech. The problem is, he often has characters such as the illiterate Faunia talking in a similar manner.
Worse still, Roth further takes us on political tangents. Since the modern-day Coleman Silk faces a situation similar to that of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and at the same time, we are repeatedly subjected to long-winded diatribes on the subject. There is easily ten times as much focus on this subject as is necessary to understand the simple connection Roth is trying to make.
That all said, the characters are, for the most part, honestly compelling and driven by motives that are made intricately clear. I enjoyed the story itself for what it was. I also think it could have been edited down to probably 60% of its length without losing anything substantial.
No problems with the narration. Boutsikaris is effective and clear, and handles accents properly. And, there are a blessed lack of musical interludes interspersed in the narrative.
Great narrator. Intriguing story. I was pulled in. The verbosity did not deter me. I like to watch Roth skin them alive, layer by layer.
Philip Roth may be my favorite author - a factor to take into account with regard to my 5 stars - but my comment is premised, not on the highly acclaimed author, but on the efforts of Dennis Boutsikaris, the narrator. I have listened to hundreds of books, none of which had better narration.
My first Roth/Audible experience with American Pastoral blew me away, story was wonderful and Ron Silver's narration I thought to be flawless (a miracle really). I then listened to Operation Shylock by Fritz Weaver whose narration was exceptional and The Counterlife and Patrimony by George Guidal who again I thought did an excellent job. Unfortunately Dennis Boutsikaris I feel to be the weakest Roth narrator I've encountered so far. He's passable but for Roth's ranting style a higher degree of energy is needed than Dennis seems capable of delivering. As one gets further into the story he seemed to be more tolerable and if you are a Roth fan by all means get this book (my favorite next to American Pastoral so far) but just don't get your hopes up on the narrator. Of course, my girlfriend hated Ron Silver's narration and for those of you who like your story straight without too much emotion, this might be for you!
I loved this book, am a latecomer to Roth, listened first to American Pastoral and the Counterlife. This was like the commentator said in the interview: Roth playing a brilliant sonata up and down the key board with intense virtuosity. Extremely satisfying and I preferred it slightly to the Pulitzer Prize Winner, American Pastoral. I liked the narrator better here too. I did not listen to it again because I just listened to Infinite Jest twice, which took seven months or so. This was not quite that hard. I went from this to Franzen's Freedom. Wow, so many great books!
A big rave.
Without hearing or reading it myself I could not have imagined so many adjectives and adverbs could be strung together into such a tome. Repetition for the sake of clarification or to express a fine point is one thing - repetition in this book is constant, leaving me with the impression left that the book is the result of a contest to see how many ways the same point could possibly be made.
The narration of the book was heroic. I found myself marveling at the stamina and mouth/tongue coordination displayed as Mr. Boutsikaris read the marathon run-on sentences.
I finally finished the book by simply letting the audio player run, waiting for a notable ending. (The sister's emergence was a nice touch, but definitely not as part of the wrap up of the book.) Alas I was left with the feeling that in the end Roth simply ran out of words.
As usual, Hollywood did a hatchet job on a good book. I'm not trying to say that this was a great book but the movie that was based on this book was completely lacking in depth or three dimensionality. Where I found this book lacking was in not fully exploring or explaining why the relationship between Coleman and his wife was so bad. Also, I felt that character Coleman was directly inspired by Anatole Broyard, who passed away in 1990, and his story was infamous by the time this book was published. My final complaint about the book was their was no attempt to empathize with Coleman about making his decision to live his life as a white man. Very little is mentioned of the terror that he must have experienced on a daily basis. Even with these faults or as faults as I see them, I still liked the book.
No doubt the book is a good one. I haven't listened to it because the narrator reads thru it without any emotions or pauses, he just goes right thru it as if it where a race.
I had to send it to y kindle so I can read it there, which sort of defeats the purpose of buying it from audible. I'll just have to buy another book to listen during my walks.
Hope this review is useful,
Just listening to the long winded descriptions of just about everything in this book is totally exhausting, not to mention boring. The monotone delivery doesnt help. DH used my car and noted that the radio was on (instead of the bluetooth device thru which I listen to my books). That's a first in a couple of years!! I am deleting this book.
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