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 his most virulent accuser. Coleman Silk has a secret. But it's not the secret of his affair, at seventy-one, with Faunia Farley, a woman half his age with a savagely wrecked past--a part-time farmhand and a janitor at the college where, until recently, he was the powerful dean of faculty. And it's not the secret of Coleman's alleged racism, which provoked the college witch-hunt that cost him his job and, to his mind, killed his wife. Nor is it the secret of misogyny, despite the best efforts of his ambitious young colleague, Professor Delphine Roux, to expose him as a fiend. Coleman's secret has been kept for fifty years: from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman, who sets out to understand how this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, had fabricated his identity and how that cannily controlled life came unraveled. Set in 1990s America, where conflicting moralities and ideological divisions are made manifest through public denunciation and rituals of purification, The Human Stain concludes Philip Roth's eloquent trilogy of postwar American lives that are as tragically determined by the nation's fate as by the "human stain" that so ineradicably marks human nature. This harrowing, deeply compassionate, and completely absorbing novel is a magnificent successor to his Vietnam-era novel, American Pastoral, and his McCarthy-era novel, I Married a Communist.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 19, 1933
Place of Birth:Newark, New Jersey
Education:B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955
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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 tookme 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 Spooks.
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 college.
"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 completely.
"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.
"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, anyway. But as for shrewd, no. She says things sometimes that sound shrewd. She says, 'Maybe you ought to think of me as a companion of equal age who happens to look younger. I think that's where I'm at.' When I asked, 'What do you want from me?' she said, 'Some companionship. Maybe some knowledge. Sex. Pleasure. Don't worry. That's it.' When I told her once she was wise beyond her years, she told me, 'I'm dumb beyond my years.' She was sure smarter than Lester, but shrewd? No. Something in Faunia is permanently fourteen and as far as you can get from shrewd. She had an affair with her boss, the guy who hired her. Smoky Hollenbeck. I hired him-guy who runs the college's physical plant. Smoky used to be a football star here. Back in the seventies I knew him as a student. Now he's a civil engineer. He hires Faunia for the custodial staff, and even while he's hiring her, she understands what's on his mind. The guy is attracted to her. He's locked into an unexciting marriage, but he's not angry with her about it-he's not looking at her disdainfully, thinking, Why haven't you settled down, why are you still tramping and whoring around? No bourgeois superiority from Smoky. Smoky is doing all the right things and doing them beautifully-a wife, kids, five kids, married as a man can be, a sports hero still around the college, popular and admired in town-but he has a gift: he can also step outside of that. You wouldn't believe it to talk to him. Mr. Athena Square squared, performing in every single way he is supposed to perform. Appears to have bought into the story of himself one hundred percent. You would expect him to think, This stupid bitch with her fucked-up life? Get her the fuck out of my office. But he doesn't. Unlike everyone else in Athena, he is not so caught up in the legend of Smoky that he is incapable of thinking, Yeah, this is a real cunt I'd like to fuck. Or incapable of acting. He fucks her, Nathan. Gets Faunia in bed with him and another of the women from the custodial staff. Fucks 'em together. Goes on for six months. Then a real estate woman, newly divorced, fresh on the local scene, she joins the act. Smoky's circus. Smoky's secret three-ring circus. But then, after six months, he drops her-takes Faunia out of the rotation and drops her. I knew nothing about any of this till she told me. And she only told me because one night in bed, her eyes roll back into her head and she calls me by his name. Whispers to me, 'Smoky.' On top of old Smoky. Her being with him in that ménage gave me a better idea of the dame I was dealing with. Upped the ante. Gave me a jolt, actually-this is no amateur. When I ask her how Smoky manages to attract his hordes, she tells me, 'By the force of his prick.' 'Explain,' I say, and she tells me, 'You know how when a real cunt walks into a room, a man knows it? Well, the same thing happens the other way round. With certain people, no matter what the disguise, you understand what they're there to do.' In bed is the only place where Faunia is in any way shrewd, Nathan. A spontaneous physical shrewdness plays the leading role in bed-second lead played by transgressive audacity. In bed nothing escapes Faunia's attention. Her flesh has eyes. Her flesh sees everything. In bed she is a powerful, coherent, unified being whose pleasure is in overstepping the boundaries. In bed she is a deep phenomenon. Maybe that's a gift of the molestation. When we go downstairs to the kitchen, when I scramble some eggs and we sit there eating together, she's a kid. Maybe that's a gift of the molestation too. I am in the company of a blank-eyed, distracted, incoherent kid. This happens nowhere else. But whenever we eat, there it is: me and my kid. Seems to be all the daughter that's left in her. She can't sit up straight in her chair, she can't string two sentences together having anything to do with each other. All the seeming nonchalance about sex and tragedy, all of that disappears, and I'm sitting there wanting to say to her, 'Pull yourself up to the table, get the sleeve of my bathrobe out of your plate, try to listen to what I'm saying, and look at me, damn it, when you speak.'"
"Do you say it?"
"Doesn't seem advisable. No, I don't-not as long as I prefer to preserve the intensity of what is there. I think of that canister under her bed, where she keeps the ashes she doesn't know what to do with, and I want to say, 'It's two years. It's time to bury them. If you can't put them in the ground, then go down to the river and shake out the ashes from the bridge. Let them float off. Let them go. I'll go do it with you. We'll do it together.' But I am not the father to this daughter-that's not the role I play here. I'm not her professor. I'm not anyone's professor. From teaching people, correcting people, advising and examining and enlightening people, I am retired. I am a seventy-one-year-old man with a thirty-four-year-old mistress; this disqualifies me, in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, from enlightening anyone. I'm taking Viagra, Nathan. There's La Belle Dame sans Merci. I owe all of this turbulence and happiness to Viagra. Without Viagra none of this would be happening. Without Viagra I would have a picture of the world appropriate to my age and wholly different aims. Without Viagra I would have the dignity of an elderly gentleman free from desire who behaves correctly. I would not be doing something that makes no sense. I would not be doing something unseemly, rash, ill considered, and potentially disastrous for all involved. Without Viagra, I could continue, in my declining years, to develop the broad impersonal perspective of an experienced and educated honorably discharged man who has long ago given up the sensual enjoyment of life. 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."
Is he astonished to be telling me all this? I think he may be. But he's too enlivened by it all to stop. The impulse is the same one that drove him to dance with me. Yes, I thought, it's no longer writing Spooks that's the defiant rebound from humiliation; it's fucking Faunia. But there's more even than that driving him. There's the wish to let the brute out, let that force out-for half an hour, for two hours, for whatever, to be freed into the natural thing. He was married a long time. He had kids. He was the dean at a college. For forty years he was doing what was necessary to do. He was busy, and the natural thing that is the brute was moved into a box. And now that box is opened. Being a dean, being a father, being a husband, being a scholar, a teacher, reading the books, giving the lectures, marking the papers, giving the grades, it's over. At seventy-one you're not the high-spirited, horny brute you were at twenty-six, of course. But the remnants of the brute, the remnants of the natural thing-he is in touch now with the remnants. And he's happy as a result, he's grateful to be in touch with the remnants. He's more than happy-he's thrilled, and he's bound, deeply bound to her already, because of the thrill. It's not family that's doing it- biology has no use for him anymore. It's not family, it's not responsibility, it's not duty, it's not money, it's not a shared philosophy or the love of literature, it's not big discussions of great ideas. No, what binds him to her is the thrill. Tomorrow he develops cancer, and boom. But today he has this thrill.
Why is he telling me? Because to be able to abandon oneself to this freely, someone has to know it. He's free to be abandoned, I thought, because there's nothing at stake. Because there is no future. Because he's seventy-one and she's thirty-four. He's in it not for learning, not for planning, but for adventure; he's in it as she is: for the ride. He's been given a lot of license by those thirty-seven years. An old man and, one last time, the sexual charge. What is more moving for anybody?
"Of course I have to ask," Coleman said, "what she's doing with me. What is really going through her mind? An exciting new experience for her, to be with a man as old as her grandfather?"
"I suppose there is that type of woman," I said, "for whom it is an exciting experience. There's every other type, why shouldn't there be that type? Look, there is obviously a department somewhere, Coleman, a federal agency that deals with old men, and she comes from that agency."
"As a young guy," Coleman told me, "I was never involved with ugly women. But in the navy I had a friend, Farriello, and ugly women were his specialty. Down at Norfolk, if we went to a dance at a church, if we went at night to the USO, Farriello made a beeline for the ugliest girl. When I laughed at him, he told me I didn't know what I was missing. They're frustrated, he told me. They're not as beautiful, he told me, as the empresses you choose, so they'll do whatever you want. Most men are stupid, he said, because they don't know this. They don't understand that if only you approach the ugliest woman, she is the one who is the most extraordinary. If you can open her up, that is. But if you succeed? If you succeed in opening her up, you don't know what to do first, she is vibrating so. And all because she's ugly. Because she is never chosen. Because she is in the corner when all the other girls dance. And that's what it's like to be an old man. To be like that ugly girl. To be in the corner at the dance."
"So Faunia's your Farriello."
He smiled. "More or less."
"Well, whatever else may be going on," I told him, "thanks to Viagra you're no longer suffering the torture of writing that book."
"I think that's so," Coleman said. "I think that's true. That stupid book. And did I tell you that Faunia can't read? I found this out when we drove up to Vermont one night for dinner. Couldn't read the menu. Tossed it aside. She has a way, when she wants to look properly contemptuous, of lifting just a half of her upper lip, lifting it a hair, and then speaking what's on her mind. Properly contemptuous, she says to the waitress, 'Whatever he has, ditto.'"
"She went to school until she was fourteen. How come she can't read?"
"The ability to read seems to have perished right along with the childhood when she learned how. I asked her how this could happen, but all she did was laugh. 'Easy,' she says. The good liberals down at Athena are trying to encourage her to enter a literacy program, but Faunia's not having it. 'And don't you try to teach me. Do anything you want with me, anything,' she told me that night, 'but don't pull that shit. Bad enough having to hear people speak. Start teaching me to read, force me into that, push reading on me, and it'll be you who push me over the edge.' All the way back from Vermont, I was silent, and so was she. Not until we reached the house did we utter a word to each other. 'You're not up to fucking somebody who can't read,' she said. 'You're going to drop me because I'm not a worthy, legitimate person who reads. You're going to say to me, 'Learn to read or go.' 'No,' I told her, 'I'm going to fuck you all the harder because you can't read.' 'Good,' she said, 'we understand each other. I don't do it like those literate girls and I don't want to be done to like them.' 'I'm going to fuck you,' I said, 'for just what you are.' 'That's the ticket,' she says. We were both laughing by then. Faunia's got the laugh of a barmaid who keeps a baseball bat at her feet in case of trouble, and so she was laughing that laugh of hers, that scrappy, I've-seen-it-all laugh-you know, the coarse, easy laugh of the woman with a past-and by then she's unzipping my fly. But she was right on the money about my having decided to give her up. All the way back from Vermont I was thinking exactly what she said I was thinking. But I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to impose my wonderful virtue on her. Or on myself. That's over. I know these things don't come without a cost. I know that there's no insurance you can buy on this. I know how the thing that's restoring you can wind up killing you. I know that every mistake that a man can make usually has a sexual accelerator. But right now I happen not to care. I wake up in the morning, there's a towel on the floor, there's baby oil on the bedside table. How did all that get there? Then I remember. Got there because I'm alive again. Because I'm back in the tornado. Because this is what it is with a capital isness. I'm not going to give her up, Nathan. I've started to call her Voluptas."
As a result of surgery I had several years ago to remove my prostate- cancer surgery that, though successful, was not without the adverse aftereffects almost unavoidable in such operations because of nerve damage and internal scarring-I've been left incontinent, and so, the first thing I did when I got home from Coleman's was to dispose of the absorbent cotton pad that I wear night and day, slipped inside the crotch of my underwear the way a hot dog lies in a roll. Because of the heat that evening, and because I wasn't going out to a public place or a social gathering, I'd tried to get by with ordinary cotton briefs pulled on over the pad instead of the plastic ones, and the result was that the urine had seeped through to my khaki trousers. I discovered when I got home that the trousers were discolored at the front and that I smelled a little-the pads are treated, but there was, on this occasion, an odor. I'd been so engaged by Coleman and his story that I'd failed to monitor myself. All the while I was there, drinking a beer, dancing with him, attending to the clarity- the predictable rationality and descriptive clarity-with which he worked to make less unsettling to himself this turn that life had taken, I hadn't gone off to check myself, as ordinarily I do during my waking hours, and so, what from time to time now happens to me happened that night. No, a mishap like this one doesn't throw me as much as it used to when, in the months after the surgery, I was first experimenting with the ways of handling the problem-and when, of course, I was habituated to being a free and easy, dry and odorless adult possessing an adult's mastery of the body's elementary functions, someone who for some sixty years had gone about his everyday business unworried about the status of his underclothes. Yet I do suffer at least a pang of distress when I have to deal with something messier than the ordinary inconvenience that is now a part of my life, and I still despair to think that the contingency that virtually defines the infant state will never be alleviated.
I was also left impotent by the surgery. The drug therapy that was practically brand-new in the summer of 1998 and that had already, in its short time on the market, proved to be something like a miraculous elixir, restoring functional potency to many otherwise healthy, elderly men like Coleman, was of no use to me because of the extensive nerve damage done by the operation. For conditions like mine Viagra could do nothing, though even had it proved helpful, I don't believe I would have taken it.
I want to make clear that it wasn't impotence that led me into a reclusive existence. To the contrary. I'd already been living and writing for some eighteen months in my two-room cabin up here in the Berkshires when, following a routine physical exam, I received a preliminary diagnosis of prostate cancer and, a month later, after the follow-up tests, went to Boston for the prostatectomy. My point is that by moving here I had altered deliberately my relationship to the sexual caterwaul, and not because the exhortations or, for that matter, my erections had been effectively weakened by time, but because I couldn't meet the costs of its clamoring anymore, could no longer marshal the wit, the strength, the patience, the illusion, the irony, the ardor, the egoism, the resilience-or the toughness, or the shrewdness, or the falseness, the dissembling, the dual being, the erotic professionalism-to deal with its array of misleading and contradictory meanings. As a result, I was able to lessen a little my postoperative shock at the prospect of permanent impotence by remembering that all the surgery had done was to make me hold to a renunciation to which I had already voluntarily submitted. The operation did no more than to enforce with finality a decision I'd come to on my own, under the pressure of a lifelong experience of entanglements but in a time of full, vigorous, and restless potency, when the venturesome masculine mania to repeat the act-repeat it and repeat it and repeat it-remained undeterred by physiological problems.
It wasn't until Coleman told me about himself and his Voluptas that all the comforting delusions about the serenity achieved through enlightened resignation vanished, and I completely lost my equilibrium. Well into the morning I lay awake, powerless as a lunatic to control my thinking, hypnotized by the other couple and comparing them to my own washed-out state. I lay awake not even trying to prevent myself from mentally reconstructing the "transgressive audacity" Coleman was refusing to relinquish. And my having danced around like a harmless eunuch with this still vital, potent participant in the frenzy struck me now as anything but charming self-satire.
How can one say, "No, this isn't a part of life," since it always is? The contaminant of sex, the redeeming corruption that de- idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.
In the middle of the next week, Coleman got the anonymous letter, one sentence long, subject, predicate, and pointed modifiers boldly inscribed in a large hand across a single sheet of white typing paper, the twelve-word message, intended as an indictment, filling the sheet from top to bottom: Everyone knows you're sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age.
The writing on both the envelope and the letter was in red ballpoint ink. Despite the envelope's New York City postmark, Coleman recognized the handwriting immediately as that of the young French woman who'd been his department chair when he'd returned to teaching after stepping down from the deanship and who, later, had been among those most eager to have him exposed as a racist and reprimanded for the insult he had leveled at his absent black students.
In his Spooks files, on several of the documents generated by his case, he found samples of handwriting that confirmed his identification of Professor Delphine Roux, of Languages and Literature, as the anonymous letter writer. Aside from her having printed rather than written in script the first couple of words, she hadn't made any effort that Coleman could see to put him off the trail by falsifying her hand. She might have begun with that intention but appeared to have abandoned it or forgotten about it after getting no further than "Everyone knows." On the envelope, the French-born professor hadn't even bothered to eschew the telltale European sevens in Coleman's street address and zip code. This laxness, an odd disregard-in an anonymous letter-for concealing the signs of one's identity, might have been explained by some extreme emotional state she was in that hadn't allowed her to think through what she was doing before firing off the letter, except that it hadn't been posted locally-and hastily-but appeared from the postmark to have been transported some hundred and forty miles south before being mailed. Maybe she had figured that there was nothing distinctive or eccentric enough in her handwriting for him to be able to recognize it from his days as dean; maybe she had failed to remember the documents pertaining to his case, the notes of her two interviews with Tracy Cummings that she had passed on to the faculty investigating committee along with the final report that bore her signature. Perhaps she didn't realize that, at Coleman's request, the committee had provided him with a photocopy of her original notes and all the other data pertinent to the complaint against him. Or maybe she didn't care if he did determine who out there had uncovered his secret: maybe she wanted both to taunt him with the menacing aggressiveness of an anonymous indictment and, at the same time, to all but disclose that the indictment had been brought by someone now far from powerless.
The afternoon Coleman called and asked me to come over to see the anonymous letter, all the samples of Delphine Roux's handwriting from the Spooks files were neatly laid out on the kitchen table, both the originals and copies of the originals that he'd already run off and on which he'd circled, in red, every stroke of the pen that he saw as replicating the strokes in the anonymous letter. Marked off mainly were letters in isolation-a y, an s, an x, here a word-ending e with a wide loop, here an e looking something like an i when nestled up against an adjacent d but more like a conventionally written e when preceding an r-and, though the similarities in writing between the letter and the Spooks documents were noteworthy, it wasn't until he showed me where his full name appeared on the envelope and where it appeared in her interview notes with Tracy Cummings that it seemed to me indisputable that he had nailed the culprit who'd set out to nail him. Everyone knows you're sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age.
While I held the letter in my hand and as carefully as I could-and as Coleman would have me do-appraised the choice of words and their linear deployment as if they'd been composed not by Delphine Roux but by Emily Dickinson, Coleman explained to me that it was Faunia, out of that savage wisdom of hers, and not he who had sworn them both to the secrecy that Delphine Roux had somehow penetrated and was more or less threatening to expose. "I don't want anybody butting in my life. All I want is a no-pressure bang once a week, on the sly, with a man who's been through it all and is nicely cooled out. Otherwise it's nobody's fucking business."
The nobody Faunia turned out mostly to be referring to was Lester Farley, her ex-husband. Not that she'd been knocked around in her life by this man alone-"How could I be, being out there on my own since I was fourteen?" When she was seventeen, for example, and down in Florida waitressing, the then-boyfriend not only beat her up and trashed her apartment, he stole her vibrator. "That hurt," Faunia said. And always, the provocation was jealousy. She'd looked at another man the wrong way, she'd invited another man to look at her the wrong way, she hadn't explained convincingly where she'd been for the previous half hour, she'd spoken the wrong word, used the wrong intonation, signaled, unsubstantially, she thought, that she was an untrustworthy two-timing slut-whatever the reason, whoever he might be would be over her swinging his fists and kicking his boots and Faunia would be screaming for her life.
Lester Farley had sent her to the hospital twice in the year before their divorce, and as he was still living somewhere in the hills and, since the bankruptcy, working for the town road crew, and as there was no doubting that he was still crazy, she was as frightened for Coleman, she said, as she was for herself, should he ever discover what was going on. She suspected that why Smoky had so precipitously dumped her was because of some sort of run-in or brush he'd had with Les Farley-because Les, a periodic stalker of his ex- wife, had somehow found out about her and her boss, even though Hollenbeck's trysting places were remarkably well hidden, tucked away in remote corners of old buildings that no one but the boss of the college physical plant could possibly know existed or have access to. Reckless as it might seem for Smoky to be recruiting girlfriends from his own custodial staff and then to be rendezvousing with them right on campus, he was otherwise as meticulous in the management of his sporting life as he was in his work for the college. With the same professional dispatch that could get the campus roads cleared of a blizzard in a matter of hours, he could, if need be, equally expeditiously rid himself of one of his girls.
"So what do I do?" Coleman asked me. "I wasn't against keeping this thing concealed even before I'd heard about the violent ex-husband. I knew that something like this was coming. Forget that I was once the dean where she now cleans the toilets. I'm seventy-one and she's thirty-four. I could count on that alone to do it, I was sure, and so, when she told me that it was nobody's business, I figured, She's taken it out of my hands. I don't even have to broach the subject. Play it like adultery? Fine with me. That's why we went for dinner up in Vermont. That's why if our paths cross at the post office, we don't even bother to say hello."
"Maybe somebody saw you in Vermont. Maybe somebody saw you driving together in your car."
"True-that's probably what happened. That's all that could have happened. It might have been Farley himself who saw us. Christ, Nathan, I hadn't been on a date in almost fifty years-I thought the restaurant . . . I'm an idiot."
"No, it wasn't idiocy. No, no-you just got claustrophobic. Look," I said, "Delphine Roux-I won't pretend I understand why she should care so passionately who you are screwing in your retirement, but since we know that other people don't do well with somebody who fails at being conventional, let's assume that she is one of these other people. But you're not. You're free. A free and independent man. A free and independent old man. You lost plenty quitting that place, but what about what you've gained? It's no longer your job to enlighten anyone-you said as much yourself. Nor is this a test of whether you can or cannot rid yourself of every last social inhibition. You may now be retired but you're a man who led virtually the whole of life within the bounds of the communal academic society- if I read you right, this is a most unusual thing for you. Perhaps you never wanted Faunia to have happened. You may even believe that you shouldn't want her to have happened. But the strongest defenses are riddled with weakness, and so in slips the last thing in the world you expected. At seventy-one, there is Faunia; in 1998, there is Viagra; there once again is the all-but-forgotten thing. The enormous comfort. The crude power. The disorienting intensity. Out of nowhere, Coleman Silk's last great fling. For all we know, the last great last-minute fling. So the particulars of Faunia Farley's biography form an unlikely contrast to your own. So they don't conform to decency's fantasy blueprint for who should be in bed with a man of your years and your position-if anyone should be. Did what resulted from your speaking the word 'spooks' conform to decency's blueprint? Did Iris's stroke conform to decency's blueprint? Ignore the inanely stupid letter. Why should you let it deter you?" "Anonymous inanely stupid letter," he said. "Who has ever sent me an anonymous letter? Who capable of rational thought sends anyone an anonymous letter?"
"Maybe it's a French thing," I said. "Isn't there a lot of it in Balzac? In Stendhal? Aren't there anonymous letters in The Red and the Black?"
"I don't remember."
"Look, for some reason everything you do must have ruthlessness as its explanation, and everything Delphine Roux does must have virtue as its explanation. Isn't mythology full of giants and monsters and snakes? By defining you as a monster, she defines herself as a heroine. This is her slaying of the monster. This is her revenge for your preying on the powerless. She's giving the whole thing mythological status."
From the smile indulgently offered me, I saw that I wasn't making much headway by spinning off, even jokingly, a pre-Homeric interpretation of the anonymous indictment. "You can't find in mythmaking," he told me, "an explanation for her mental processes. She hasn't the imaginative resources for mythmaking. Her métier is the stories that the peasants tell to account for their misery. The evil eye. The casting of spells. I've cast a spell over Faunia. Her métier is folktales full of witches and wizards."
We were enjoying ourselves now, and I realized that in my effort to distract him from his rampaging pique by arguing for the primacy of his pleasure, I had given a boost to his feeling for me- and exposed mine for him. I was gushing and I knew it. I surprised myself with my eagerness to please, felt myself saying too much, explaining too much, overinvolved and overexcited in the way you are when you're a kid and you think you've found a soul mate in the new boy down the street and you feel yourself drawn by the force of the courtship and so act as you don't normally do and a lot more openly than you may even want to. But ever since he had banged on my door the day after Iris's death and proposed that I write Spooks for him, I had, without figuring or planning on it, fallen into a serious friendship with Coleman Silk. I wasn't paying attention to his predicament as merely a mental exercise. His difficulties mattered to me, and this despite my determination to concern myself, in whatever time I have left, with nothing but the daily demands of work, to be engrossed by nothing but solid work, in search of adventure nowhere else-to have not even a life of my own to care about, let alone somebody else's.
And I realized all this with some disappointment. Abnegation of society, abstention from distraction, a self-imposed separation from every last professional yearning and social delusion and cultural poison and alluring intimacy, a rigorous reclusion such as that practiced by religious devouts who immure themselves in caves or cells or isolated forest huts, is maintained on stuff more obdurate than I am made of. I had lasted alone just five years-five years of reading and writing a few miles up Madamaska Mountain in a pleasant two-room cabin situated between a small pond at the back of my place and, through the scrub across the dirt road, a ten-acre marsh where the migrating Canada geese take shelter each evening and a patient blue heron does its solitary angling all summer long. The secret to living in the rush of the world with a minimum of pain is to get as many people as possible to string along with your delusions; the trick to living alone up here, away from all agitating entanglements, allurements, and expectations, apart especially from one's own intensity, is to organize the silence, to think of its mountaintop plenitude as capital, silence as wealth exponentially increasing. The encircling silence as your chosen source of advantage and your only intimate. The trick is to find sustenance in (Hawthorne again) "the communications of a solitary mind with itself." The secret is to find sustenance in people like Hawthorne, in the wisdom of the brilliant deceased.
It took time to face down the difficulties set by this choice, time and heronlike patience to subdue the longings for everything that had vanished, but after five years I'd become so skillful at surgically carving up my days that there was no longer an hour of the eventless existence I'd embraced that didn't have its importance to me. Its necessity. Its excitement even. I no longer indulged the pernicious wish for something else, and the last thing I thought I could endure again was the sustained company of someone else. The music I play after dinner is not a relief from the silence but something like its substantiation: listening to music for an hour or two every evening doesn't deprive me of the silence-the music is the silence coming true. I swim for thirty minutes in my pond first thing every summer morning, and, for the rest of the year, after my morning of writing-and so long as the snow doesn't make hiking impossible-I'm out on the mountain trails for a couple of hours nearly every afternoon. There has been no recurrence of the cancer that cost me my prostate. Sixty-five, fit, well, working hard-and I know the score. I have to know it.
So why, then, having turned the experiment of radical seclusion into a rich, full solitary existence-why, with no warning, should I be lonely? Lonely for what? What's gone is gone. There's no relaxing the rigor, no undoing the renunciations. Lonely for precisely what? Simple: for what I had developed an aversion to. For what I had turned my back on. For life. The entanglement with life.
This was how Coleman became my friend and how I came out from under the stalwartness of living alone in my secluded house and dealing with the cancer blows. Coleman Silk danced me right back into life. First Athena College, then me-here was a man who made things happen. Indeed, the dance that sealed our friendship was also what made his disaster my subject. And made his disguise my subject. And made the proper presentation of his secret my problem to solve. That was how I ceased being able to live apart from the turbulence and intensity that I had fled. I did no more than find a friend, and all the world's malice came rushing in.
Later that afternoon, Coleman took me to meet Faunia at a small dairy farm six miles from his house, where she lived rent-free in exchange for sometimes doing the milking. The dairy operation, a few years old now, had been initiated by two divorced women, college-educated environmentalists, who'd each come from a New England farming family and who had pooled their resources-pooled their young children as well, six children who, as the owners liked to tell their customers, weren't dependent on Sesame Street to learn where milk comes from-to take on the almost impossible task of making a living by selling raw milk. It was a unique operation, nothing like what was going on at the big dairy farms, nothing impersonal or factorylike about it, a place that wouldn't seem like a dairy farm to most people these days. It was called Organic Livestock, and it produced and bottled the raw milk that could be found in local general stores and in some of the region's supermarkets and was available, at the farm, for steady customers who purchased three or more gallons a week.
There were just eleven cows, purebred Jerseys, and each had an old-fashioned cow name rather than a numbered ear tag to identify it. Because their milk was not mixed with the milk of the huge herds that are injected with all sorts of chemicals, and because, uncompromised by pasteurization and unshattered by homogenization, the milk took on the tinge, even faintly the flavor, of whatever they were eating season by season-feed that had been grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers-and because their milk was richer in nutrients than blended milk, it was prized by the people around who tried to keep the family diet to whole rather than processed foods. The farm has a strong following particularly among the numerous people tucked away up here, the retired as well as those raising families, in flight from the pollutants, frustrations, and debasements of a big city. In the local weekly, a letter to the editor will regularly appear from someone who has recently found a better life out along these rural roads, and in reverent tones mention will be made of Organic Livestock milk, not simply as a tasty drink but as the embodiment of a freshening, sweetening country purity that their city-battered idealism requires. Words like "goodness" and "soul" crop up regularly in these published letters, as if downing a glass of Organic Livestock milk were no less a redemptive religious rite than a nutritional blessing. "When we drink Organic Livestock milk, our body, soul, and spirit are getting nourished as a whole. Various organs in our body receive this wholeness and appreciate it in a way we may not perceive." Sentences like that, sentences with which otherwise sensible adults, liberated from whatever vexation had driven them from New York or Hartford or Boston, can spend a pleasant few minutes at the desk pretending that they are seven years old.
Though Coleman probably used, all told, no more than the half cup of milk a day he poured over his morning cereal, he'd signed on with Organic Livestock as a three-gallon-a-week customer. Doing this allowed him to pick up his milk, fresh from the cow, right at the farm-to drive his car in from the road and down the long tractor path to the barn.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Philip Roth's The Human Stain. We hope they will provide you with fruitful ways of thinking and talking about a novel that has been called "one of the most provocative explorations of race and rage in American literature." —The Christian Science Monitor
1. Why does Roth begin the novel by establishing the parallel story of the public scandal over Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinskya scandal that "revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony" [p. 2]? How are Clinton's and Silk's stories similar? In what ways does this context extend the novel's scope beyond one man's experience to a larger critique of late twentieth-century American culture?
2. Coleman Silk's downfall is caused, ostensibly, by the spurious charge of racism that results from his question about two absent black students. But as we learn more of Silk's pasta past of which his colleagues at Athena have no knowledgehis disgrace takes on different meanings. What ironies are involved in Silk being charged with racism when he himself is black? By denying his own racial identity has he turned it into a kind of ghost? Is Coleman in any way responsible for his own destruction?
3. Delphine Roux appears to act on behalf of the aggrieved students, but what other motives does she have for orchestrating the attack on Coleman Silk? Is she aware of her motivation? What discrepancies are revealed between her public position and her emotional struggles?
4. Why do Silk's colleagues fail to defend him? Why would highly educated academicspeople trained to weigh evidence carefully and to be aware of the complex subtleties of any object of studyso readily believe the absurd stories concocted to disgrace Coleman Silk? Why does Ernestine describe Athena College as "a hotbed of ignorance" [p. 328]?
5. Coleman and Faunia are an unlikely couplea seventy-one-year-old classics professor and a thirty-four-year-old janitor. What draws them together? What do they offer each other? How is their relationshipthe relationship about which "everyone knows"[as Delphine Roux claims in her anonymous letter]different from what others imagine it to be? Why is Coleman able to reveal his secret to her?
6. Throughout the novel, characters are portrayed as caricatures through a set of preexisting and cliched storiesColeman is the racist professor and lecherous old man who takes advantage of a woman half his age; Faunia Farley is the nafive and helpless victim; Les Farley is the crazed, abusive husband. How does the real story of each of these characters defy or complicate these simplifications?
7. In what ways are each of the major characters in the novelColeman, Faunia, and Lescontrolled by the past?
8. After the funeral, when Ernestine reveals that Coleman was black, Nathan reflects, "I couldn't imagine anything that could have made Coleman more of a mystery to me than this unmasking. Now that I knew everything, it was as though I knew nothing" [p. 333]. What is Roth saying about the limits of our ability really to know one another? At what other points in the novel does this problem arise?
9. Late in the novel, Nathan discovers that Faunia had kept a diary and that "the illiteracy had been an act, something she decided her situation demanded" [p. 297]. Why did Faunia feign illiteracy? Was there any reason why she chose this flaw in lieu of others? What are the implications of her secret?
10. In the overheard conversation that begins Chapter 3, one of the characters complains of his students, "They fix on the conventionalized narrative, with its beginning, middle, and endevery experience, no matter how ambiguous, no matter how knotty or mysterious, must lend itself to this normalizing, conventionalizing, anchorman clichZ?. Any kid who says 'closure' I flunk. They want closure, there's their closure" [p. 147]. In what ways does The Human Stain resist this "conventionalizing" need for closure? How does it alter the classical unities of beginning, middle, and end?
11. The Vietnam vet Les Farley is a menacing, violently angry character, whose stream-of-consciousness rants reflect some of the most powerful writing in the book. What kind of mental and emotional damage has the war done to him? How has it changed who he is? What are the implications of Les's being the instrument of Coleman's destruction?
12. After an argument with Coleman, Faunia drives to the Audubon Society to visit Prince, a crow who was raised by people and achieved notoriety for acting like a "big shot" and stealing girls' barrettes. When Faunia learns that Prince has ripped down the newspaper clippings about him, she says, "He didn't want anybody to know his background! Ashamed of his own background! Prince! . . . Oh, you good boy. You're a good crow" [p. 240]. And when she's told that Prince can't live among other crows, she says, "That's what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The Human Stain" [p. 242]. In what ways can this episode be read as a parable of Coleman Silk's own experience? How does this passage help to explain the novel's title?
13. Nathan interprets Coleman's choosing to reject his past and create a new identity for himself as "the drama that underlies America's story, the high drama that is upping and leavingand the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands," whereas Walter thinks of his brother as a "calculating liar," a "heartless son," and a "traitor to his race" [p. 342]. Which of these views seems closer to the truth? Are they both legitimate? What is Ernestine's position?
14. Coleman Silk is a professor of ancient Greek and Roman literature, and the novel abounds in classical references. The college is named Athena, Coleman thinks Viagra should be called Zeus, the author of the anonymous e-mail message that slanders Coleman calls herself Clytemnestra, the three young professors whom Coleman overhears commenting on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal are referred to as a chorus, and so on. What do these allusions add to the novel? How are elements of Greek tragedy such as hubris, the hero's fall, retribution, and ritual cleansing relevant to the action of the novel?
15. The Human Stain ends with Zuckerman finding Les Farley ice fishing in the middle of a secluded lake. Les says, "And now you know my secret spot. . . . You know everything. . . . But you won't tell nobody, will you? It's nice to have a secret spot. You don't tell anybody about 'em. You learn not to say anything" [p. 361]. In what sense is the entire novel about revealing and concealing secrets?
16. The Human Stain is a novel of sweeping ambition that tells the stories not just of individual lives but of the moral ethos of America at the end of the twentieth century. How would that ethos be described? What does the novel reveal about the complexity of issues such as race, sex, identity, and privacy?