This amazingly insightful novel, set in 1998, is an unrelenting look at the conflicted American psyche over prurience, purity, and political correctness and the havoc that is wreaked in the mix of those obsessions. 1998 is the year when the American public can't wait to read every anatomical detail of a President's affair with an intern while pretending to be horrified. That is the context of this story about Coleman Silk, a classics professor at Athena College located in the Berkshires, who inadvertently falls victim to these American obsessions. Coleman is an enigmatic fellow who took major social risks in his early years, only to find no escape from the political correctness agenda as he approaches seventy.
The story is told by Nathan Zuckerman, aka Philip Roth, who lives near Coleman and becomes friends with him after his being drummed out of the college for a remark he made in a class that was misconstrued as being racially insensitive. It is a charge filled with irony given Coleman's background that is slowly pieced together by Zuckerman in the entirety of the book. In putting his life back together, Coleman begins an affair with a thirty-something female janitor at the college Faunia, who has been battered by life but who has a subtle appeal. Of course, this only adds fuel to the purity fire that has already burned Coleman. A French-born, young female professor and Faunia's ex-husband make every effort to ensure that Coleman pays a high price for his apparent indiscriminate pleasure seeking.
The book is really more of a sociological treatise than it is a novel. The characters go on for pages in their reflections and conversations concerning the fault lines in American society and the difficulties in surmounting them. The plot is only a device to substantiate those difficulties. There is a sameness to most of the characters: their personalities are secondary to their thoughts and words. But the words are riveting. It is hard to imagine a book that better captures the destructiveness that can enter lives when it is judged that social mores have been violated regardless of a high degree of hypocrisy lurking behind the standards.
- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: VINTAGE ARROW - MASS MARKET; 1 edition (4 May 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780099282198
- ISBN-13: 978-0099282198
- ASIN: 0099282194
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.4 x 19.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 272 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 51,004 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)