PHILIP ROTH'S NEW novel may well be the most depressing work of literature published this year. It's a wintry disavowal of "good manners," "kindness," and most of all the metaphysical howler that is "propriety," here envisioned as a peculiarly American malady infecting everything from Hawthorne's New England to the Clinton impeachment, during whose summer the bulk of the plot takes place. Reliable narrator Nathan Zuckerman, now both impotent and incontinent ("I am forced to imagine....It's now all I do"), glosses the title: "We leave a stain....Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen--there's no other way to be here." Sixty-eight years young, and a mere five years past the exuberant kiss-off to death that was Sabbath's Theater, Roth seems positively in a hurry to leap into the grave. The result is a perilously unbalanced creation whose tides of bleakness nearly swamp the fascinated exploration of racial self-invention that is at the heart of this story.
This time Zuckerman enters a provisional friendship with his neighbor, a classics professor named Coleman Silk who was drummed out of teaching for allegedly uttering a racist epithet. Though Zuckerman refuses to write Silk's hoped-for saga of persecution by a cabal of p.c.-wary administrators and jargon-spouting theoryheads, he nonetheless entangles himself in Silk's new life: Old men from adjoining regions of northern New Jersey, the two find themselves drawn together by history, culture, and sensibility. Silk seeks a listener, Zuckerman another storyteller.
Yet the book Zuckerman writes is one Silk strove all his life to keep unpublished: After dropping out of Howard University midway through his freshman year, he passed as white for the remainder of his life. The strongest parts of the book explore what it cost someone like Silk (loosely modeled on critic Anatole Broyard) to renounce all that endowed his life with meaning and historicity. Without choosing sides, Roth empathizes with the joys that opened up for a man of Silk's talents as well as what he left behind. In the worst parts, he fulminates uninterestingly against p.c. (likened backhandedly to McCarthyism) and flattens Silk's straw-woman antagonist, a nervously hip Frenchwoman revealed as, of course, every inch the project in self-fashioning, and less alert to women's real needs than Silk.
Although Silk's determinedly dignified family comes vigorously to life, the sheer concentration of desolation here, along with the comparatively easy targets against which Roth tilts, can't help making the reader wonder: If the universe is really this barren, why haven't we dug our plots next to Roth's and jumped in already?