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Picks and Pans Review: The Human Stain

updated 05/29/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/2000 01:00AM

by Philip Roth

Eventful (perhaps too much so) and peopled by fascinating if often implausible characters, this novel is what soap operas might be if they all were created by highly literate people. Narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's favorite alter ego, it's the story of Coleman Silk, 72, a college dean who is accused of racism and hounded to resign. (His crime: asking his class if two chronically absent students "exist or are they spooks?" (The absent students, he learns to his chagrin, are black.) Roth goes 85 pages before revealing that Silk is a light-skinned black who has passed as white (and Jewish) since his 20s. Silk is also hounded for his affair with an illiterate cleaning lady who is being stalked by her Vietnam vet ex-husband. Roth doesn't tie Silk's racial subterfuge to much beyond Silk's sister's proclamation, "One can only do so much to control one's life." Stain is overdrawn and overambitious but never dull. (Houghton Mifflin, $26)

Bottom Line: General Hospital written by Tolstoy

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