Yet that physical desecration seems puny next to the intellectual desecration she describes to Zuckerman:
Youngsters were coming to me the year I retired, telling me that for Black History Month they would only read a biography of a black by a black. What difference, I would ask them, if it’s a black author or it’s a white author? I’m impatient with Black History Month altogether. I liken having a Black History Month in February and concentrating study on that to milk that’s just about to go sour. You can drink it, but it doesn’t taste right.
Those words are something like a death knell for the liberalism Roth thought he knew. It’s as if E.M. Forster’s great dictum “Only connect,” which had seemed so romantic and noble when young people rediscovered him in the ’60s, had been replaced by a new generation of inner-city youth with “Only separate.”
Roth, though, has refused to separate, even if his mouthpiece, Zuckerman (who has been at the center of eight Roth novels since 1979′s “The Ghost Writer”), has tried to. In “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and now “The Human Stain,” Zuckerman, having withdrawn from everything but work, is living in a two-room cottage in the Berkshires. His separation is, of course, doomed to failure: Life, in the form of other people, keeps flooding in.
In “American Pastoral,” it’s the hero of Zuckerman’s youth, the Jewish athlete whose blue-eyed, golden-haired good looks and later success in everything seemed to contain a whole Jewish generation’s dreams of assimilation. In “I Married a Communist,” it’s Zuckerman’s high school English teacher, Murray Ringold, a victim of the blacklist, and Ringold’s radio-actor brother, Zuckerman’s first mentor. Coleman Silk does not figure in the novelist’s past; Zuckerman first meets him when Coleman bursts into his refuge, insisting that Zuckerman write the story of his persecution. Zuckerman initially declines, but a friendship begins, partly because the two men share a frame of reference.
Though Roth is nearing 70, both the quality and the quantity of his writing — six novels in the past 10 years — are evidence of an amazing vigor. Still, you read this trilogy conscious that the author is trying to fix the middle-class Jewish Newark of his youth in much the same way that, at a certain age, you begin asking your parents to repeat the stories you’ve grown up hearing, to make sure you have the details right — accepting your role as repository of memory. In “I Married a Communist” Ringold reconstructs Newark’s vanished Italian First Ward in a long description that is as full and affectionate as Ernestine’s description of present-day East Orange is spare and disdainful. It’s just one of the many echoes of memory in these three books, which are haunted by the past. And yet there is a terrible, twisted continuity in the way Roth links the past with the present.
“American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and “The Human Stain” can be read independently of one another, but they come together more fully than any set of American works since the first two “Godfather” movies, forming an epic portrait of what Roth calls “the indigenous American berserk” — that is, the craziness that always threatens to topple real life into (as Greil Marcus put it just as Clinton’s detractors were building up a head of steam) what passes for real life these days.
The two earlier versions of the berserk — the rise of the leftist fringe during the Vietnam War in “American Pastoral,” McCarthyism in “I Married a Communist” — are more cataclysmic than “the ecstasy of sanctimony” that found its outlet in the impeachment of Clinton, but this latest outbreak is the most disturbingly widespread. After two books in which, respectively, the delusions of the left and the delusions of the right took center stage, Roth has written a concluding volume in which the delusions of each side come together, the hunting of Clinton (from the right) finding its perfect echo in the hunting of Coleman (from the left).
At first it may seem that Roth is a few years behind the zeitgeist: The culture wars of the early ’90s look almost as distant now as the ’68 Chicago police riots did by the time of the ’72 presidential election. Even the term “p.c.” has taken on a certain quaintness. But think about it for a minute, and you realize how deeply the passion for what is “appropriate” has come to rule public discourse on both the right and the left. Pick up the April Playboy and you can read conservative tag-team Evans and Novak calling Clinton’s infidelity “relevant” because “when you are doing things in the working quarters of the White House … that is in the public domain.” A recent Time Out New York contained this description of D.W. Griffith’s tenderest masterpiece, “Broken Blossoms”: “If you can get past famous white dude Richard Barthelmess playing an Asian, there’s much to admire in this sensitive melodrama.”
For Roth, the need to cushion circumstances that any normal adult should be able to understand is the wellspring in the impeachment drama. He calls the summer of 1998 the time “when the moral obligation to explain to one’s children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life.” In the America of “The Human Stain” we have all become children, talking to and talked to by others as if the primary function of adult conversation were protection.
Yet for all that, these books suggest a deep determination to avoid rage. The characters who succumb to it bring about their destruction. Even the epiphanies of disgust in these novels (like the scene in “I Married a Communist” in which Roth describes what he regards as the most ludicrous, self-deluding spectacle in recent American life, the funeral of Richard Nixon) reach their pitch of emotion through hard, measured reason. Proceeding from the assumption that adults don’t need coddling, Roth addresses us in language as direct and as clear as he can make it.
I’ve hardly touched on the book’s finely drawn characters, or on the concrete and subtle ways that Coleman’s predicament links up with Clinton’s, the two of them captured in Roth’s title, which denotes both the notorious stain on Monica Lewinsky’s blue Gap dress and the basic fact of human imperfection. “The Human Stain” is the capstone to a cycle, both cruel and brave, of novels that Roth has graced with a lovingly unsentimental portrait of his own vanished past. At the end, the voice of his alter ego and hero, Nathan Zuckerman, moves from a solitary, familiar “I” back to an uncertain “we.” Where that change will lead the novelist and his creation isn’t clear. Roth’s portrait of the derangement we’ve accepted in real life — or what passes for it these days — leaves it open as to whether Zuckerman is headed back to a bizarro world or to a world where the novelist’s voice could find an audience willing to listen.