Dreary, unfocused tale of a part-Jewish Texas high-school football player named Hitler.
Second-novelist Estrin (Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, 2001) gives himself a heavy burden here by naming his protagonist Arnold Hitler, a burden that his light and fanciful prose has a difficult time bearing. The conceit is that an American soldier with the infamous last name serving in WWII accidentally wounds, rescues and ultimately marries a gorgeous half-Jewish Italian woman and brings her back to his home state of Texas, where they raise a son. Arnold grows up to be somewhat of a wonder, a prodigy in search of a vocation. He’s a chess whiz at the age of six, a star on the football field and publisher of a surprisingly widely read high-school newsletter on linguistic matters. The strikingly handsome Arnold gets his heart broken by a girl who goes away to Oberlin and becomes a radical feminist. He leaves Texas not long after for Harvard and an education in politics. Estrin at times seems to want Arnold to be his innocent traveling through history, growing up in a harshly racist town during the 1950s desegregation turmoil and then attending Harvard at the height of the Vietnam anti-war movement, all in the interest of educating him in the ways of the world—or words, in the case of the linguistically obsessed Arnold. But while the narrative’s sense of fancy takes it quite a ways (you don’t really notice that there’s no plot until about two hundred pages in), it can’t quite take this story to the finish line. Well before its conclusion, Arnold’s journey gets lost in a murk of semantic rhetoric and too much ado about very little that makes the author’s choice of a last name seem more of a gag than anything else. Even cameos by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Noam Chomsky can’t quite bring this Candide home.
Regrettable proof that love of language isn’t enough all by itself.