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Peter StarkIt's hard to believe that 200 years ago, the Pacific Northwest was one of the most remote and isolated regions in the world. In 1810, four years... Continue »
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The Human Stain

The Human Stain Cover





Everyone Knows

It was in 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. Twice a week she

also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that

looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of

the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn

across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American

flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center

of this mountainside town.

Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office

floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing

time, to get his mail-a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond

hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted

features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking

goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern

colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to

it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she

kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide

nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at

a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay

her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.

The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about

Faunia Farley and their secret was the summer, fittingly enough, that

Bill Clinton's secret emerged in every last mortifying detail-every

last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded

by the pungency of the specific data. We hadn't had a season like it

since somebody stumbled upon the new Miss America nude in an old

issue of Penthouse, pictures of her elegantly posed on her knees and

on her back that forced the shamed young woman to relinquish her

crown and go on to become a huge pop star. Ninety-eight in New

England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a

summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a

home-run god who was brown, and in 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 twenty-one-year-old employee carrying

on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived

America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most

treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In

the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous

grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were

everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a

calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne (who, in the 1860s, lived not

many miles from my door) identified in the incipient country of long

ago as "the persecuting spirit"; all of them eager to enact the

astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection

from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough

for Senator Lieberman's ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her

embarrassed daddy again. No, if you haven't lived through 1998, you

don't know what sanctimony is. The syndicated conservative newspaper

columnist William F. Buckley wrote, "When Abelard did it, it was

possible to prevent its happening again," insinuating that the

president's malfeasance-what Buckley elsewhere called

Clinton's "incontinent carnality"-might best be remedied with nothing

so bloodless as impeachment but, rather, by the twelfth-century

punishment meted out to Canon Abelard by the knife-wielding

associates of Abelard's ecclesiastical colleague, Canon Fulbert, for

Abelard's secret seduction of and marriage to Fulbert's niece, the

virgin Heloise. Unlike Khomeini's fatwa condemning to death Salman

Rushdie, Buckley's wistful longing for the corrective retribution of

castration carried with it no financial incentive for any prospective

perpetrator. It was prompted by a spirit no less exacting than the

ayatollah's, however, and in behalf of no less exalted ideals.

It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when

the joking didn't stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and

the hyperbole didn't stop, 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, when the smallness of people

was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in

the nation and, on both sides, people wondered "Why are we so

crazy?," when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning,

discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that

transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the

brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner,

draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the

White House to the other and bearing the legend a human being lives

here. It was the summer when-for the billionth time-the jumble, the

mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one's ideology

and that one's morality. It was the summer when a president's penis

was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once

again confounded America.

Sometimes on a Saturday, Coleman Silk would give me a ring and invite

me to drive over from my side of the mountain after dinner to listen

to music, or to play, for a penny a point, a little gin rummy, or to

sit in his living room for a couple of hours and sip some cognac and

help him get through what was always for him the worst night of the

week. By the summer of 1998, he had been alone up here-alone in the

large old white clapboard house where he'd raised four children with

his wife, Iris-for close to two years, ever since Iris suffered a

stroke and died overnight while he was in the midst of battling with

the college over a charge of racism brought against him by two

students in one of his classes.

Coleman had by then been at Athena almost all his academic

life, an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer,

something of a warrior, something of an operator, hardly the

prototypical pedantic professor of Latin and Greek (as witness the

Conversational Greek and Latin Club that he started, heretically, as

a young instructor). His venerable survey course in ancient Greek

literature in translation-known as GHM, for Gods, Heroes, and Myth-

was popular with students precisely because of everything direct,

frank, and unacademically forceful in his comportment. "You know how

European literature begins?" he'd ask, after having taken the roll at

the first class meeting. "With a quarrel. All of European literature

springs from a fight." And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad

and read to the class the opening lines. "'Divine Muse, sing of the

ruinous wrath of Achilles . . . Begin where they first quarreled,

Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.' And what are they

quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It's as basic as a

barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A

girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war. Mia kouri-that

is how she is described in the poem. Mia, as in modern Greek, is the

indefinite article 'a'; kouri, or girl, evolves in modern Greek into

kori, meaning daughter. Now, Agamemnon much prefers this girl to his

wife, Clytemnestra. 'Clytemnestra is not as good as she is,' he

says, 'neither in face nor in figure.' That puts directly enough,

does it not, why he doesn't want to give her up? When Achilles

demands that Agamemnon return the girl to her father in order to

assuage Apollo, the god who is murderously angry about the

circumstances surrounding her abduction, Agamemnon refuses: he'll

agree only if Achilles gives him his girl in exchange. Thus

reigniting Achilles. Adrenal Achilles: the most highly flammable of

explosive wildmen any writer has ever enjoyed portraying; especially

where his prestige and his appetite are concerned, the most

hypersensitive killing machine in the history of warfare. Celebrated

Achilles: alienated and estranged by a slight to his honor. Great

heroic Achilles, who, through the strength of his rage at an insult-

the insult of not getting the girl-isolates himself, positions

himself defiantly outside the very society whose glorious protector

he is and whose need of him is enormous. A quarrel, then, a brutal

quarrel over a young girl and her young body and the delights of

sexual rapacity: there, for better or worse, in this offense against

the phallic entitlement, the phallic dignity, of a powerhouse of a

warrior prince, is how the great imaginative literature of Europe

begins, and that is why, close to three thousand years later, we are

going to begin there today . . ."

Coleman was one of a handful of Jews on the Athena faculty

when he was hired and perhaps among the first of the Jews permitted

to teach in a classics department anywhere in America; a few years

earlier, Athena's solitary Jew had been E. I. Lonoff, the all-but-

forgotten short story writer whom, back when I was myself a newly

published apprentice in trouble and eagerly seeking the validation of

a master, I had once paid a memorable visit to here. Through the

eighties and into the nineties, Coleman was also the first and only

Jew ever to serve at Athena as dean of faculty; then, in 1995, after

retiring as dean in order to round out his career back in the

classroom, he resumed teaching two of his courses under the aegis of

the combined languages and literature program that had absorbed the

Classics Department and that was run by Professor Delphine Roux. As

dean, and with the full support of an ambitious new president,

Coleman had taken an antiquated, backwater, Sleepy Hollowish college

and, not without steamrolling, put an end to the place as a

gentlemen's farm by aggressively encouraging the deadwood among the

faculty's old guard to seek early retirement, recruiting ambitious

young assistant professors, and revolutionizing the curriculum. It's

almost a certainty that had he retired, without incident, in his own

good time, there would have been the festschrift, there would have

been the institution of the Coleman Silk Lecture Series, there would

have been a classical studies chair established in his name, and

perhaps-given his importance to the twentieth-century revitalization

of the place-the humanities building or even North Hall, the

college's landmark, would have been renamed in his honor after his

death. In the small academic world where he had lived the bulk of his

life, he would have long ceased to be resented or controversial or

even feared, and, instead, officially glorified forever.

It was about midway into his second semester back as a full-

time professor that Coleman spoke the self-incriminating word that

would cause him voluntarily to sever all ties to the college-the

single self-incriminating word of the many millions spoken aloud in

his years of teaching and administering at Athena, and the word that,

as Coleman understood things, directly led to his wife's death.

The class consisted of fourteen students. Coleman had taken

attendance at the beginning of the first several lectures so as to

learn their names. As there were still two names that failed to

elicit a response by the fifth week into the semester, Coleman, in

the sixth week, opened the session by asking, "Does anyone know these

people? Do they exist or are they spooks?"

Later that day he was astonished to be called in by his

successor, the new dean of faculty, to address the charge of racism

brought against him by the two missing students, who turned out to be

black, and who, though absent, had quickly learned of the locution in

which he'd publicly raised the question of their absence. Coleman

told the dean, "I was referring to their possibly ectoplasmic

character. Isn't that obvious? These two students had not attended a

single class. That's all I knew about them. I was using the word in

its customary and primary meaning: 'spook' as a specter or a ghost. I

had no idea what color these two students might be. I had known

perhaps fifty years ago but had wholly forgotten that 'spooks' is an

invidious term sometimes applied to blacks. Otherwise, since I am

totally meticulous regarding student sensibilities, I would never

have used that word. Consider the context: Do they exist or are they

spooks? The charge of racism is spurious. It is preposterous. My

colleagues know it is preposterous and my students know it is

preposterous. The issue, the only issue, is the nonattendance of

these two students and their flagrant and inexcusable neglect of

work. What's galling is that the charge is not just false-it is

spectacularly false." Having said altogether enough in his defense,

considering the matter closed, he left for home.

Now, even ordinary deans, I am told, serving as they do in a

no man's land between the faculty and the higher administration,

invariably make enemies. They don't always grant the salary raises

that are requested or the convenient parking places that are so

coveted or the larger offices professors believe they are entitled

to. Candidates for appointments or promotion, especially in weak

departments, are routinely rejected. Departmental petitions for

additional faculty positions and secretarial help are almost always

turned down, as are requests for reduced teaching loads and for

freedom from early morning classes. Funds for travel to academic

conferences are regularly denied, et cetera, et cetera. But Coleman

had been no ordinary dean, and who he got rid of and how he got rid

of them, what he abolished and what he established, and how

audaciously he performed his job into the teeth of tremendous

resistance succeeded in more than merely slighting or offending a few

odd ingrates and malcontents. Under the protection of Pierce Roberts,

the handsome young hotshot president with all the hair who came in

and appointed him to the deanship-and who told him, "Changes are

going to be made, and anybody who's unhappy should just think about

leaving or early retirement"-Coleman had overturned everything. When,

eight years later, midway through Coleman's tenure, Roberts accepted

a prestigious Big Ten presidency, it was on the strength of a

reputation for all that had been achieved at Athena in record time-

achieved, however, not by the glamorous president who was essentially

a fund-raiser, who'd taken none of the hits and moved on from Athena

heralded and unscathed, but by his determined dean of faculty.

In the very first month he was appointed dean, Coleman had

invited every faculty member in for a talk, including several senior

professors who were the scions of the old county families who'd

founded and originally endowed the place and who themselves didn't

really need the money but gladly accepted their salaries. Each of

them was instructed beforehand to bring along his or her c.v., and if

someone didn't bring it, because he or she was too grand, Coleman had

it in front of him on his desk anyway. And for a full hour he kept

them there, sometimes even longer, until, having so persuasively

indicated that things at Athena had at long last changed, he had

begun to make them sweat. Nor did he hesitate to open the interview

by flipping through the c.v. and saying, "For the last eleven years,

just what have you been doing?" And when they told him, as an

overwhelming number of the faculty did, that they'd been publishing

regularly in Athena Notes, when he'd heard one time too many about

the philological, bibliographical, or archaeological scholarly

oddment each of them annually culled from an ancient Ph.D.

dissertation for "publication" in the mimeographed quarterly bound in

gray cardboard that was cataloged nowhere on earth but in the college

library, he was reputed to have dared to break the Athena civility

code by saying, "In other words, you people recycle your own trash."

Not only did he then shut down Athena Notes by returning the tiny

bequest to the donor-the father-in-law of the editor-but, to

encourage early retirement, he forced the deadest of the deadwood out

of the courses they'd been delivering by rote for the last twenty or

thirty years and into freshman English and the history survey and the

new freshman orientation program held during the hot last days of the

summer. He eliminated the ill-named Scholar of the Year Prize and

assigned the thousand dollars elsewhere. For the first time in the

college's history, he made people apply formally, with a detailed

project description, for paid sabbatical leave, which was more often

than not denied. He got rid of the clubby faculty lunchroom, which

boasted the most exquisite of the paneled oak interiors on the

campus, converted it back into the honors seminar room it was

intended to be, and made the faculty eat in the cafeteria with the

students. He insisted on faculty meetings-never holding them had made

the previous dean enormously popular. Coleman had attendance taken by

the faculty secretary so that even the eminences with the three-hour-

a-week schedules were forced onto the campus to show up. He found a

provision in the college constitution that said there were to be no

executive committees, and arguing that those stodgy impediments to

serious change had grown up only by convention and tradition, he

abolished them and ruled these faculty meetings by fiat, using each

as an occasion to announce what he was going to do next that was sure

to stir up even more resentment. Under his leadership, promotion

became difficult-and this, perhaps, was the greatest shock of all:

people were no longer promoted through rank automatically on the

basis of being popular teachers, and they didn't get salary increases

that weren't tied to merit. In short, he brought in competition, he

made the place competitive, which, as an early enemy noted, "is what

Jews do." And whenever an angry ad hoc committee was formed to go and

complain to Pierce Roberts, the president unfailingly backed Coleman.

In the Roberts years all the bright younger people he

recruited loved Coleman because of the room he was making for them

and because of the good people he began hiring out of graduate

programs at Johns Hopkins and Yale and Cornell-"the revolution of

quality," as they themselves liked to describe it. They prized him

for taking the ruling elite out of their little club and threatening

their self-presentation, which never fails to drive a pompous

professor crazy. All the older guys who were the weakest part of the

faculty had survived on the ways that they thought of themselves-the

greatest scholar of the year 100 b.c., and so forth-and once those

were challenged from above, their confidence eroded and, in a matter

of a few years, they had nearly all disappeared. Heady times! But

after Pierce Roberts moved on to the big job at Michigan, and Haines,

the new president, came in with no particular loyalty to Coleman-and,

unlike his predecessor, exhibiting no special tolerance for the brand

of bulldozing vanity and autocratic ego that had cleaned the place

out in so brief a period-and as the young people Coleman had kept on

as well as those he'd recruited began to become the veteran faculty,

a reaction against Dean Silk started to set in. How strong it was he

had never entirely realized until he counted all the people,

department by department, who seemed to be not at all displeased that

the word the old dean had chosen to characterize his two seemingly

nonexistent students was definable not only by the primary dictionary

meaning that he maintained was obviously the one he'd intended but by

the pejorative racial meaning that had sent his two black students to

lodge their complaint.

I remember clearly that April day two years back when Iris Silk died

and the insanity took hold of Coleman. Other than to offer a nod to

one or the other of them whenever our paths crossed down at the

general store or the post office, I had not really known the Silks or

anything much about them before then. I hadn't even known that

Coleman had grown up some four or five miles away from me in the tiny

Essex County town of East Orange, New Jersey, and that, as a 1944

graduate of East Orange High, he had been some six years ahead of me

in my neighboring Newark school. Coleman had made no effort to get to

know me, nor had I left New York and moved into a two-room cabin set

way back in a field on a rural road high in the Berkshires to meet

new people or to join a new community. The invitations I received

during my first months out here in 1993-to come to a dinner, to tea,

to a cocktail party, to trek to the college down in the valley to

deliver a public lecture or, if I preferred, to talk informally to a

literature class-I politely declined, and after that both the

neighbors and the college let me be to live and do my work on my own.

But then, on that afternoon two years back, having driven

directly from making arrangements for Iris's burial, Coleman was at

the side of my house, banging on the door and asking to be let in.

Though he had something urgent to ask, he couldn't stay seated for

more than thirty seconds to clarify what it was. He got up, sat down,

got up again, roamed round and round my workroom, speaking loudly and

in a rush, even menacingly shaking a fist in the air when-erroneously-

he believed emphasis was needed. I had to write something for him-he

all but ordered me to. If he wrote the story in all of its absurdity,

altering nothing, nobody would believe it, nobody would take it

seriously, people would say it was a ludicrous lie, a self-serving

exaggeration, they would say that more than his having uttered the

word "spooks" in a classroom had to lie behind his downfall. But if I

wrote it, if a professional writer wrote it . . .

All the restraint had collapsed within him, and so watching

him, listening to him-a man I did not know, but clearly someone

accomplished and of consequence now completely unhinged-was like

being present at a bad highway accident or a fire or a frightening

explosion, at a public disaster that mesmerizes as much by its

improbability as by its grotesqueness. The way he careened around the

room made me think of those familiar chickens that keep on going

after having been beheaded. His head had been lopped off, the head

encasing the educated brain of the once unassailable faculty dean and

classics professor, and what I was witnessing was the amputated rest

of him spinning out of control.

I-whose house he had never before entered, whose very voice

he had barely heard before-had to put aside whatever else I might be

doing and write about how his enemies at Athena, in striking out at

him, had instead felled her. Creating their false image of him,

calling him everything that he wasn't and could never be, they had

not merely misrepresented a professional career conducted with the

utmost seriousness and dedication-they had killed his wife of over

forty years. Killed her as if they'd taken aim and fired a bullet

into her heart. I had to write about this "absurdity,"

that "absurdity"-I, who then knew nothing about his woes at the

college and could not even begin to follow the chronology of the

horror that, for five months now, had engulfed him and the late Iris

Silk: the punishing immersion in meetings, hearings, and interviews,

the documents and letters submitted to college officials, to faculty

committees, to a pro bono black lawyer representing the two

students . . . the charges, denials, and countercharges, the

obtuseness, ignorance, and cynicism, the gross and deliberate

misinterpretations, the laborious, repetitious explanations, the

prosecutorial questions-and always, perpetually, the pervasive sense

of unreality. "Her murder!" Coleman cried, leaning across my desk and

hammering on it with his fist. "These people murdered Iris!"

The face he showed me, the face he placed no more than a foot

from my own, was by now dented and lopsided and-for the face of a

well-groomed, youthfully handsome older man-strangely repellent, more

than likely distorted from the toxic effect of all the emotion

coursing through him. It was, up close, bruised and ruined like a

piece of fruit that's been knocked from its stall in the marketplace

and kicked to and fro along the ground by the passing shoppers.

There is something fascinating about what moral suffering can

do to someone who is in no obvious way a weak or feeble person. It's

more insidious even than what physical illness can do, because there

is no morphine drip or spinal block or radical surgery to alleviate

it. Once you're in its grip, it's as though it will have to kill you

for you to be free of it. Its raw realism is like nothing else.

Murdered. For Coleman that alone explained how, out of

nowhere, the end could have come to an energetic sixty-four-year-old

woman of commanding presence and in perfect health, an abstract

painter whose canvases dominated the local art shows and who herself

autocratically administered the town artists' association, a poet

published in the county newspaper, in her day the college's leading

politically active opponent of bomb shelters, of strontium 90,

eventually of the Vietnam War, opinionated, unyielding, impolitic, an

imperious whirlwind of a woman recognizable a hundred yards away by

her great tangled wreath of wiry white hair; so strong a person,

apparently, that despite his own formidableness, the dean who

reputedly could steamroll anybody, the dean who had done the

academically impossible by bringing deliverance to Athena College,

could best his own wife at nothing other than tennis.

Once Coleman had come under attack, however-once the racist

charge had been taken up for investigation, not only by the new dean

of faculty but by the college's small black student organization and

by a black activist group from Pittsfield-the outright madness of it

blotted out the million difficulties of the Silks' marriage, and that

same imperiousness that had for four decades clashed with his own

obstinate autonomy and resulted in the unending friction of their

lives, Iris placed at the disposal of her husband's cause. Though for

years they had not slept in the same bed or been able to endure very

much of the other's conversation-or of the other's friends-the Silks

were side by side again, waving their fists in the faces of people

they hated more profoundly than, in their most insufferable moments,

they could manage to hate each other. All they'd had in common as

comradely lovers forty years earlier in Greenwich Village-when he was

at NYU finishing up his Ph.D. and Iris was an escapee fresh from two

nutty anarchist parents in Passaic and modeling for life drawing

classes at the Art Students League, armed already with her thicket of

important hair, big- featured and voluptuous, already then a

theatrical-looking high priestess in folkloric jewelry, the biblical

high priestess from before the time of the synagogue-all they'd had

in common in those Village days (except for the erotic passion) once

again broke wildly out into the open . . . until the morning when she

awakened with a ferocious headache and no feeling in one of her arms.

Coleman rushed her to the hospital, but by the next day she was dead.

"They meant to kill me and they got her instead." So Coleman

told me more than once during that unannounced visit to my house, and

then made sure to tell every single person at her funeral the

following afternoon. And so he still believed. He was not susceptible

to any other explanation. Ever since her death-and since he'd come to

recognize that his ordeal wasn't a subject I wished to address in my

fiction and he had accepted back from me all the documentation dumped

on my desk that day-he had been at work on a book of his own about

why he had resigned from Athena, a nonfiction book he was calling


There's a small FM station over in Springfield that on Saturday

nights, from six to midnight, takes a break from the regular

classical programming and plays big-band music for the first few

hours of the evening and then jazz later on. On my side of the

mountain you get nothing but static tuning to that frequency, but on

the slope where Coleman lives the reception's fine, and on the

occasions when he'd invite me for a Saturday evening drink, all those

sugary-sweet dance tunes that kids of our generation heard

continuously over the radio and played on the jukeboxes back in the

forties could be heard coming from Coleman's house as soon as I

stepped out of my car in his driveway. Coleman had it going full

blast not just on the living room stereo receiver but on the radio

beside his bed, the radio beside the shower, and the radio beside the

kitchen bread box. No matter what he might be doing around the house

on a Saturday night, until the station signed off at midnight-

following a ritual weekly half hour of Benny Goodman-he wasn't out of

earshot for a minute.

Oddly, he said, none of the serious stuff he'd been listening

to all his adult life put him into emotional motion the way that old

swing music now did: "Everything stoical within me unclenches and the

wish not to die, never to die, is almost too great to bear. And all

this," he explained, "from listening to Vaughn Monroe." Some nights,

every line of every song assumed a significance so bizarrely

momentous that he'd wind up dancing by himself the shuffling,

drifting, repetitious, uninspired, yet wonderfully serviceable, mood-

making fox trot that he used to dance with the East Orange High girls

on whom he pressed, through his trousers, his first meaningful

erections; and while he danced, nothing he was feeling, he told me,

was simulated, neither the terror (over extinction) nor the rapture

(over "You sigh, the song begins. You speak, and I hear violins").

The teardrops were all spontaneously shed, however astonished he may

have been by how little resistance he had to Helen O'Connell and Bob

Eberly alternately delivering the verses of "Green Eyes," however

much he might marvel at how Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey were able to

transform him into the kind of assailable old man he could never have

expected to be. "But let anyone born in 1926," he'd say, "try to stay

alone at home on a Saturday night in 1998 and listen to Dick Haymes

singing 'Those Little White Lies.' Just have them do that, and then

let them tell me afterwards if they have not understood at last the

celebrated doctrine of the catharsis effected by tragedy."

Coleman was cleaning up his dinner dishes when I came through

a screen door at the side of the house leading into the kitchen.

Because he was over the sink and the water was running, and because

the radio was loudly playing and he was singing along with the young

Frank Sinatra "Everything Happens to Me," he didn't hear me come in.

It was a hot night; Coleman wore a pair of denim shorts and sneakers,

and that was it. From behind, this man of seventy-one looked to be no

more than forty-slender and fit and forty. Coleman was not much over

five eight, if that, he was not heavily muscled, and yet there was a

lot of strength in him, and a lot of the bounce of the high school

athlete was still visible, the quickness, the urge to action that we

used to call pep. His tightly coiled, short-clipped hair had turned

the color of oatmeal, and so head-on, despite the boyish snub nose,

he didn't look quite so youthful as he might have if his hair were

still dark. Also, there were crevices carved deeply at either side of

his mouth, and in the greenish hazel eyes there was, since Iris's

death and his resignation from the college, much, much weariness and

spiritual depletion. Coleman had the incongruous, almost puppetlike

good looks that you confront in the aging faces of movie actors who

were famous on the screen as sparkling children and on whom the

juvenile star is indelibly stamped.

All in all, he remained 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. When Coleman Silk was a

sailor at the Norfolk naval base down in Virginia at the close of

World War II, because his name didn't give him away as a Jew-because

it could as easily have been a Negro's name-he'd once been

identified, in a brothel, as a nigger trying to pass and been thrown

out. "Thrown out of a Norfolk whorehouse for being black, thrown out

of Athena College for being white." I'd heard stuff like that from

him frequently during these last two years, ravings about black anti-

Semitism and about his treacherous, cowardly colleagues that were

obviously being mainlined, unmodified, into his book.

"Thrown out of Athena," he told me, "for being a white Jew of

the sort those ignorant bastards call the enemy. That's who's made

their American misery. That's who stole them out of paradise. And

that's who's been holding them back all these years. What is the

major source of black suffering on this planet? They know the answer

without having to come to class. They know without having to open a

book. Without reading they know-without thinking they know. Who is

responsible? The same evil Old Testament monsters responsible for the

suffering of the Germans.

"They killed her, Nathan. And who would have thought that

Iris couldn't take it? But strong as she was, loud as she was, Iris

could not. Their brand of stupidity was too much even for a

juggernaut like my wife. 'Spooks.' And who here would defend me? Herb

Keble? As dean I brought Herb Keble into the college. Did it only

months after taking the job. Brought him in not just as the first

black in the social sciences but as the first black in anything other

than a custodial position. But Herb too has been radicalized by the

racism of Jews like me. 'I can't be with you on this, Coleman. I'm

going to have to be with them.' This is what he told me when I went

to ask for his support. To my face. I'm going to have to be with

them. Them!

"You should have seen Herb at Iris's funeral. Crushed.

Devastated. Somebody died? Herbert didn't intend for anybody to die.

These shenanigans were so much jockeying for power. To gain a bigger

say in how the college is run. They were just exploiting a useful

situation. It was a way to prod Haines and the administration into

doing what they otherwise would never have done. More blacks on

campus. More black students, more black professors. Representation-

that was the issue. The only issue. God knows nobody was meant to

die. Or to resign either. That too took Herbert by surprise. Why

should Coleman Silk resign? Nobody was going to fire him. Nobody

would dare to fire him. They were doing what they were doing just

because they could do it. Their intention was to hold my feet over

the flames just a little while longer-why couldn't I have been

patient and waited? By the next semester who would have remembered

any of it? The incident-the incident!-provided them with

an 'organizing issue' of the sort that was needed at a racially

retarded place like Athena. Why did I quit? By the time I quit it was

essentially over. What the hell was I quitting for?"

On just my previous visit, Coleman had begun waving something

in my face from the moment I'd come through the door, yet another

document from the hundreds of documents filed in the boxes

labeled "Spooks." "Here. One of my gifted colleagues. Writing about

one of the two who brought the charges against me-a student who had

never attended my class, flunked all but one of the other courses she

was taking, and rarely attended them. I thought she flunked because

she couldn't confront the material, let alone begin to master it, but

it turned out that she flunked because she was too intimidated by the

racism emanating from her white professors to work up the courage to

go to class. The very racism that I had articulated. In one of those

meetings, hearings, whatever they were, they asked me, 'What factors,

in your judgment, led to this student's failure?' 'What factors?' I

said. 'Indifference. Arrogance. Apathy. Personal distress. Who

knows?' 'But,' they asked me, 'in light of these factors, what

positive recommendations did you make to this student?' 'I didn't

make any. I'd never laid eyes on her. If I'd had the opportunity, I

would have recommended that she leave school.' 'Why?' they asked

me. 'Because she didn't belong in school.'

"Let me read from this document. Listen to this. Filed by a

colleague of mine supporting Tracy Cummings as someone we should not

be too harsh or too quick to judge, certainly not someone we should

turn away and reject. Tracy we must nurture, Tracy we must understand-

we have to know, this scholar tells us, 'where Tracy's coming from.'

Let me read you the last sentences. 'Tracy is from a rather difficult

background, in that she separated from her immediate family in tenth

grade and lived with relatives. As a result, she was not particularly

good at dealing with the realities of a situation. This defect I

admit. But she is ready, willing, and able to change her approach to

living. What I have seen coming to birth in her during these last

weeks is a realization of the seriousness of her avoidance of

reality.' Sentences composed by one Delphine Roux, chairman of

Languages and Literature, who teaches, among other things, a course

in French classicism. A realization of the seriousness of her

avoidance of reality. Ah, enough. Enough. This is sickening. This is

just too sickening."

That's what I witnessed, more often than not, when I came to

keep Coleman company on a Saturday night: a humiliating disgrace that

was still eating away at someone who was still fully vital. The great

man brought low and suffering still the shame of failure. Something

like what you might have seen had you dropped in on Nixon at San

Clemente or on Jimmy Carter, down in Georgia, before he began doing

penance for his defeat by becoming a carpenter. Something very sad.

And yet, despite my sympathy for Coleman's ordeal and for all he had

unjustly lost and for the near impossibility of his tearing himself

free from his bitterness, there were evenings when, after having

sipped only a few drops of his brandy, it required something like a

feat of magic for me to stay awake.

But on the night I'm describing, when we had drifted onto the

cool screened-in side porch that he used in the summertime as a

study, he was as fond of the world as a man can be. He'd pulled a

couple of bottles of beer from the refrigerator when we left the

kitchen, and we were seated across from each other at either side of

the long trestle table that was his desk out there and that was

stacked at one end with composition books, some twenty or thirty of

them, divided into three piles.

"Well, there it is," said Coleman, now this calm,

unoppressed, entirely new being. "That's it. That's Spooks. Finished

a first draft yesterday, spent all day today reading it through, and

every page of it made me sick. The violence in the handwriting was

enough to make me despise the author. That I should spend a single

quarter of an hour at this, let alone two years . . . Iris died

because of them? Who will believe it? I hardly believe it myself any

longer. To turn this screed into a book, to bleach out the raging

misery and turn it into something by a sane human being, would take

two years more at least. And what would I then have, aside from two

years more of thinking about 'them'? Not that I've given myself over

to forgiveness. Don't get me wrong: I hate the bastards. I hate the

fucking bastards the way Gulliver hates the whole human race after he

goes and lives with those horses. I hate them with a real biological

aversion. Though those horses I always found ridiculous. Didn't you?

I used to think of them as the wasp establishment that ran this place

when I first got here."

"You're in good form, Coleman-barely a glimmer of the old

madness. Three weeks, a month ago, whenever it was I saw you last,

you were still knee-deep in your own blood."

"Because of this thing. But I read it and it's shit and I'm

over it. I can't do what the pros do. Writing about myself, I can't

maneuver the creative remove. Page after page, it is still the raw

thing. It's a parody of the self-justifying memoir. The hopelessness

of explanation." Smiling, he said, "Kissinger can unload fourteen

hundred pages of this stuff every other year, but it's defeated me.

Blindly secure though I may seem to be in my narcissistic bubble, I'm

no match for him. I quit."

Now, most writers who are brought to a standstill after

rereading two years' work-even one year's work, merely half a year's

work-and finding it hopelessly misguided and bringing down on it the

critical guillotine are reduced to a state of suicidal despair from

which it can take months to begin to recover. Yet Coleman, by

abandoning a draft of a book as bad as the draft he'd finished, had

somehow managed to swim free not only from the wreck of the book but

from the wreck of his life. Without the book he appeared now to be

without the slightest craving to set the record straight; shed of the

passion to clear his name and criminalize as murderers his opponents,

he was embalmed no longer in injustice. Aside from watching Nelson

Mandela, on TV, forgiving his jailers even as he was leaving jail

with his last miserable jail meal still being assimilated into his

system, I'd never before seen a change of heart transform a martyred

being quite so swiftly. I couldn't understand it, and I at first

couldn't bring myself to believe in it either.

"Walking away like this, cheerfully saying, 'It's defeated

me,' walking away from all this work, from all this loathing-well,

how are you going to fill the outrage void?"

"I'm not." He got the cards and a notepad to keep score and

we pulled our chairs down to where the trestle table was clear of

papers. He shuffled the cards and I cut them and he dealt. And then,

in this odd, serene state of contentment brought on by the seeming

emancipation from despising everyone at Athena who, deliberately and

in bad faith, had misjudged, misused, and besmirched him-had plunged

him, for two years, into a misanthropic exertion of Swiftian

proportions-he began to rhapsodize about the great bygone days when

his cup ranneth over and his considerable talent for

conscientiousness was spent garnering and tendering pleasure.

Now that he was no longer grounded in his hate, we were going

to talk about women. This was a new Coleman. Or perhaps an old

Coleman, the oldest adult Coleman there was, the most satisfied

Coleman there had ever been. Not Coleman pre-spooks and unmaligned as

a racist, but the Coleman contaminated by desire alone.

"I came out of the navy, I got a place in the Village," he

began to tell me as he assembled his hand, "and all I had to do was

go down into the subway. It was like fishing down there. Go down into

the subway and come up with a girl. And then"-he stopped to pick up

my discard-"all at once, got my degree, got married, got my job,

kids, and that was the end of the fishing."

"Never fished again."

"Almost never. True. Virtually never. As good as never. Hear

these songs?" The four radios were playing in the house, and so even

out on the road it would have been impossible not to hear

them. "After the war, those were the songs," he said. "Four, five

years of the songs, the girls, and that fulfilled my every ideal. I

found a letter today. Cleaning out that Spooks stuff, found a letter

from one of the girls. The girl. After I got my first appointment,

out on Long Island, out at Adelphi, and Iris was pregnant with Jeff,

this letter arrived. A girl nearly six feet tall. Iris was a big girl

too. But not big like Steena. Iris was substantial. Steena was

something else. Steena sent me this letter in 1954 and it turned up

today while I was shoveling out the files."

From the back pocket of his shorts, Coleman pulled the

original envelope holding Steena's letter. He was still without a T-

shirt, which now that we were out of the kitchen and on the porch I

couldn't help but take note of-it was a warm July night, but not that

warm. He had never struck me before as a man whose considerable

vanity extended also to his anatomy. But now there seemed to me to be

something more than a mere at-homeness expressed in this exhibition

of his body's suntanned surface. On display were the shoulders, arms,

and chest of a smallish man still trim and attractive, a belly no

longer flat, to be sure, but nothing that had gotten seriously out of

hand-altogether the physique of someone who would seem to have been a

cunning and wily competitor at sports rather than an overpowering

one. And all this had previously been concealed from me, because he

was always shirted and also because of his having been so drastically

consumed by his rage.

Also previously concealed was the small, Popeye-ish, blue

tattoo situated at the top of his right arm, just at the shoulder

joining-the words "U.S. Navy" inscribed between the hooklike arms of

a shadowy little anchor and running along the hypotenuse of the

deltoid muscle. A tiny symbol, if one were needed, of all the million

circumstances of the other fellow's life, of that blizzard of details

that constitute the confusion of a human biography-a tiny symbol to

remind me why our understanding of people must always be at best

slightly wrong.

"Kept it? The letter? Still got it?" I said. "Must've been

some letter."

"A killing letter. Something had happened to me that I hadn't

understood until that letter. I was married, responsibly employed, we

were going to have a child, and yet I hadn't understood that the

Steenas were over. Got this letter and I realized that the serious

things had really begun, the serious life dedicated to serious

things. My father owned a saloon off Grove Street in East Orange.

You're a Weequahic boy, you don't know East Orange. It was the poor

end of town. He was one of those Jewish saloon keepers, they were all

over Jersey and, of course, they all had ties to the Reinfelds and to

the Mob-they had to have, to survive the Mob. My father wasn't a

roughneck but he was rough enough, and he wanted better for me. He

dropped dead my last year of high school. I was the only child. The

adored one. He wouldn't even let me work in his place when the types

there began to entertain me. Everything in life, including the saloon-

beginning with the saloon-was always pushing me to be a serious

student, and, back in those days, studying my high school Latin,

taking advanced Latin, taking Greek, which was still part of the old-

fashioned curriculum, the saloon keeper's kid couldn't have tried

harder to be any more serious."

There was some quick by-play between us and Coleman laid down

his cards to show me his winning hand. As I started to deal, he

resumed the story. I'd never heard it before. I'd never heard

anything before other than how he'd come by his hatred for the


"Well," he said, "once I'd fulfilled my father's dream and

become an ultra-respectable college professor, I thought, as my

father did, that the serious life would now never end. That it could

never end once you had the credentials. But it ended, Nathan. 'Or are

they spooks?' and I'm out on my ass. When Roberts was here he liked

to tell people that my success as a dean flowed from learning my

manners in a saloon. President Roberts with his upper-class pedigree

liked that he had this barroom brawler parked just across the hall

from him. In front of the old guard particularly, Roberts pretended

to enjoy me for my background, though, as we know, Gentiles actually

hate those stories about the Jews and their remarkable rise from the

slums. Yes, there was a certain amount of mockery in Pierce Roberts,

and even then, yes, when I think about it, starting even then . . ."

But here he reined himself in. Wouldn't go on with it. He was

finished with the derangement of being the monarch deposed. The

grievance that will never die is hereby declared dead.

Back to Steena. Remembering Steena helps enormously.

"Met her in '48," he said. "I was twenty-two, on the GI Bill

at NYU, the navy behind me, and she was eighteen and only a few

months in New York. Had some kind of job there and was going to

college, too, but at night. Independent girl from Minnesota. Sure-of-

herself girl, or seemed so. Danish on one side, Icelandic on the

other. Quick. Smart. Pretty. Tall. Marvelously tall. That statuesque

recumbency. Never forgotten it. With her for two years. Used to call

her Voluptas. Psyche's daughter. The personification to the Romans of

sensual pleasure."

Now he put down his cards, picked up the envelope from where

he'd dropped it beside the discard pile, and pulled out the letter. A

typewritten letter a couple of pages long. "We'd run into each other.

I was in from Adelphi, in the city for the day, and there was Steena,

about twenty-four, twenty-five by then. We stopped and spoke, and I

told her my wife was pregnant, and she told me what she was doing,

and then we kissed goodbye, and that was it. About a week later this

letter came to me care of the college. It's dated. She dated it. Here-

'August 18, 1954.' 'Dear Coleman,' she says, 'I was very happy to see

you in New York. Brief as our meeting was, after I saw you I felt an

autumnal sadness, perhaps because the six years since we first met

make it wrenchingly obvious how many days of my life are "over." You

look very good, and I'm glad you're happy. You were also very

gentlemanly. You didn't swoop. Which is the one thing you did (or

seemed to do) when I first met you and you rented the basement room

on Sullivan Street. Do you remember yourself? You were incredibly

good at swooping, almost like birds do when they fly over land or sea

and spy something moving, something bursting with life, and dive down-

or zero in-and seize upon it. I was astonished, when we met, by your

flying energy. I remember being in your room the first time and, when

I arrived, I sat in a chair, and you were walking around the room

from place to place, occasionally stopping to perch on a stool or the

couch. You had a ratty Salvation Army couch where you slept before we

chipped in for The Mattress. You offered me a drink, which you handed

to me while scrutinizing me with an air of incredible wonder and

curiosity, as if it were some kind of miracle that I had hands and

could hold a glass, or that I had a mouth which might drink from it,

or that I had even materialized at all, in your room, a day after

we'd met on the subway. You were talking, asking questions, sometimes

answering questions, in a deadly serious and yet hilarious way, and I

was trying very hard to talk also but conversation was not coming as

easily to me. So there I was staring back at you, absorbing and

understanding far more than I expected to understand. But I couldn't

find words to speak to fill the space created by the fact that you

seemed attracted to me and that I was attracted to you. I kept

thinking, "I'm not ready. I just arrived in this city. Not now. But I

will be, with a little more time, a few more exchanged notes of

conversation, if I can think what I wish to say." ("Ready" for what,

I don't know. Not just making love. Ready to be.) But then

you "swooped," Coleman, nearly halfway across the room, to where I

was sitting, and I was flabbergasted but delighted. It was too soon,

but it wasn't.'"

He stopped reading when he heard, coming from the radio, the

first bars of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" being sung by

Sinatra. "I've got to dance," Coleman said. "Want to dance?"

I laughed. No, this was not the savage, embittered, embattled

avenger of Spooks, estranged from life and maddened by it-this was

not even another man. This was another soul. A boyish soul at that. I

got a strong picture then, both from Steena's letter and from

Coleman, shirtless, as he was reading it, of what Coleman Silk had

once been like. Before becoming a revolutionary dean, before becoming

a serious classics professor-and long before becoming Athena's pariah-

he had been not only a studious boy but a charming and seductive boy

as well. Excited. Mischievous. A bit demonic even, a snub-nosed, goat-

footed Pan. Once upon a time, before the serious things took over


"After I hear the rest of the letter," I replied to the

invitation to dance. "Read me the rest of Steena's letter."

"Three months out of Minnesota when we met. Just went down

into the subway and brought her up with me. Well," he said, "that was

1948 for you," and he turned back to her letter. "'I was quite taken

with you,'" he read, "'but I was concerned you might find me too

young, an uninteresting midwestern bland sort of girl, and besides,

you were dating someone "smart and nice and lovely" already, though

you added, with a sly smile, "I don't believe she and I will get

married." "Why not?" I asked. "I may be getting bored," you answered,

thereby ensuring that I would do anything I could think of not to

bore you, including dropping out of contact, if necessary, so as to

avoid the risk of becoming boring. Well, that's it. That's enough. I

shouldn't even bother you. I promise I won't ever again. Take care.

Take care. Take care. Take care. Very fondly, Steena.'"

"Well," I said, "that is 1948 for you."

"Come. Let's dance."

"But you mustn't sing into my ear."

"Come on. Get up."

What the hell, I thought, we'll both be dead soon enough, and

so I got up, and there on the porch Coleman Silk and I began to dance

the fox trot together. He led, and, as best I could, I followed. I

remembered that day he'd burst into my studio after making burial

arrangements for Iris and, out of his mind with grief and rage, told

me that I had to write for him the book about all the unbelievable

absurdities of his case, culminating in the murder of his wife. One

would have thought that never again would this man have a taste for

the foolishness of life, that all that was playful in him and

lighthearted had been destroyed and lost, right along with the

career, the reputation, and the formidable wife. Maybe why it didn't

even cross my mind to laugh and let him, if he wanted to, dance

around the porch by himself, just laugh and enjoy myself watching him-

maybe why I gave him my hand and let him place his arm around my back

and push me dreamily around that old bluestone floor was because I

had been there that day when her corpse was still warm and seen what

he'd looked like.

"I hope nobody from the volunteer fire department drives by,"

I said.

"Yeah," he said. "We don't want anybody tapping me on the

shoulder and asking, 'May I cut in?'"

On we danced. There was nothing overtly carnal in it, but

because Coleman was wearing only his denim shorts and my hand rested

easily on his warm back as if it were the back of a dog or a horse,

it wasn't entirely a mocking act. There was a semi-serious sincerity

in his guiding me about on the stone floor, not to mention a

thoughtless delight in just being alive, accidentally and clownishly

and for no reason alive-the kind of delight you take as a child when

you first learn to play a tune with a comb and toilet paper.

It was when we sat down that Coleman told me about the

woman. "I'm having an affair, Nathan. I'm having an affair with a

thirty-four-year-old woman. I can't tell you what it's done to me."

"We just finished dancing-you don't have to."

"I thought I couldn't take any more of anything. But when

this stuff comes back so late in life, out of nowhere, completely

unexpected, even unwanted, comes back at you and there's nothing to

dilute it with, when you're no longer striving on twenty-two fronts,

no longer deep in the daily disorder . . . when it's just this . . ."

"And when she's thirty-four."

"And ignitable. An ignitable woman. She's turned sex into a

vice again."

"'La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall.'"

"Seems so. I say, 'What is it like for you with somebody

seventy-one?' and she tells me, 'It's perfect with somebody seventy-

one. He's set in his ways and he can't change. You know what he is.

No surprises.'"

"What's made her so wise?"

"Surprises. Thirty-four years of savage surprises have given

her wisdom. But it's a very narrow, antisocial wisdom. It's savage,

too. It's the wisdom of somebody who expects nothing. That's her

wisdom, and that's her dignity, but it's negative wisdom, and that's

not the kind that keeps you on course day to day. This is a woman

whose life's been trying to grind her down almost for as long as

she's had life. Whatever she's learned comes from that."

I thought, He's found somebody he can talk with . . . and

then I thought, So have I. The moment a man starts to tell you about

sex, he's telling you something about the two of you. Ninety percent

of the time it doesn't happen, and probably it's as well it doesn't,

though if you can't get a level of candor on sex and you choose to

behave instead as if this isn't ever on your mind, the male

friendship is incomplete. Most men never find such a friend. It's not

common. But when it does happen, when two men find themselves in

agreement about this essential part of being a man, unafraid of being

judged, shamed, envied, or outdone, confident of not having the

confidence betrayed, their human connection can be very strong and an

unexpected intimacy results. This probably isn't usual for him, I was

thinking, but because he'd come to me in his worst moment, full of

the hatred that I'd watched poison him over the months, he feels the

freedom of being with someone who's seen you through a terrible

illness from the side of your bed. He feels not so much the urge to

brag as the enormous relief of not having to keep something so

bewilderingly new as his own rebirth totally to himself.

"Where did you find her?" I asked.

"I went to pick up my mail at the end of the day and there

she was, mopping the floor. She's the skinny blonde who sometimes

cleans out the post office. She's on the regular janitorial staff at

Athena. She's a full-time janitor where I was once dean. The woman

has nothing. Faunia Farley. That's her name. Faunia has absolutely


"Why has she nothing?"

"She had a husband. He beat her so badly she ended up in a

coma. They had a dairy farm. He ran it so badly it went bankrupt. She

had two children. A space heater tipped over, caught fire, and both

children were asphyxiated. Aside from the ashes of the two children

that she keeps in a canister under her bed, she owns nothing of value

except an '83 Chevy. The only time I've seen her come close to crying

was when she told me, 'I don't know what to do with the ashes.' Rural

disaster has squeezed Faunia dry of even her tears. And she began

life a rich, privileged kid. Brought up in a big sprawling house

south of Boston. Fireplaces in the five bedrooms, the best antiques,

heirloom china-everything old and the best, the family included. She

can be surprisingly well spoken if she wants to be. But she's dropped

so far down the social ladder from so far up that by now she's a

pretty mixed bag of verbal beans. Faunia's been exiled from the

entitlement that should have been hers. Declassed. There's a real

democratization to her suffering."

"What undid her?"

"A stepfather undid her. Upper-bourgeois evil undid her.

There was a divorce when she was five. The prosperous father caught

the beautiful mother having an affair. The mother liked money,

remarried money, and the rich stepfather wouldn't leave Faunia alone.

Fondling her from the day he arrived. Couldn't stay away from her.

This blond angelic child, fondling her, fingering her-it's when he

tried fucking her that she ran away. She was fourteen. The mother

refused to believe her. They took her to a psychiatrist. Faunia told

the psychiatrist what happened, and after ten sessions the

psychiatrist too sided with the stepfather. 'Takes the side of those

who pay him,' Faunia says. 'Just like everyone.' The mother had an

affair with the psychiatrist afterward. That is the story, as she

reports it, of what launched her into the life of a tough having to

make her way on her own. Ran away from home, from high school, went

down south, worked there, came back up this way, got whatever work

she could, and at twenty married this farmer, older than herself, a

dairy farmer, a Vietnam vet, thinking that if they worked hard and

raised kids and made the farm work she could have a stable, ordinary

life, even if the guy was on the dumb side. Especially if he was on

the dumb side. She thought she might be better off being the one with

the brains. She thought that was her advantage. She was wrong. All

they had together was trouble. The farm failed. 'Jerk-off,' she tells

me, 'bought one tractor too many.' And regularly beat her up. Beat

her black and blue. You know what she presents as the high point of

the marriage? The event she calls 'the great warm shit fight.' One

evening they are in the barn after the milking arguing about

something, and a cow next to her takes a big shit, and Faunia picks

up a handful and flings it in Lester's face. He flings a handful

back, and that's how it started. She said to me, 'The warm shit fight

may have been the best time we had together.' At the end, they were

covered with cow shit and roaring with laughter, and, after washing

off with the hose in the barn, they went up to the house to fuck. But

that was carrying a good thing too far. That wasn't one-hundredth of

the fun of the fight. Fucking Lester wasn't ever fun-according to

Faunia, he didn't know how to do it. 'Too dumb even to fuck right.'

When she tells me that I am the perfect man, I tell her that I see

how that might seem so to her, coming to me after him."

"And fighting the Lesters of life with warm shit since she's

fourteen has made her what at thirty-four," I asked, "aside from

savagely wise? Tough? Shrewd? Enraged? Crazy?"

"The fighting life has made her tough, certainly sexually

tough, but it hasn't made her crazy. At least I don't think so yet.

Enraged? If it's there-and why wouldn't it be?-it's a furtive rage.

Rage without the rage. And, for someone who seems to have lived

entirely without luck, there's no lament in her-none she shows to me,


Product Details

A Novel
Roth, Philip
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Boston :
Humorous Stories
Psychological fiction
College teachers
Jewish men
African American men
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
May 2000
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
9 x 6 x 0.56 in 1.36 lb

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

The Human Stain
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Product details 376 pages Houghton Mifflin Company - English 9780618059454 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , Set in 1990s America, where conflicting moralities and ideological divisions are made manifest through public denunciations and rituals of purification, the newest novel by award-winning author Philip Roth concludes his eloquent trilogy of postwar American lives begun in "American Pastoral" and continued in "I Married a Communist."
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