A novel as odd as it is thematically ambitious reveals the source of Adolf Hitler’s evil. (The devil made him do it.)
Having assumed the voice of Jesus in an earlier novel (The Gospel According to the Son, 1997), the irrepressible Mailer here gives the darker spiritual forces their due. Narrated by a former German SS officer who ultimately reveals a number of surprising secrets—about both himself and the Hitler family—the plot encompasses the incest leading to Adolf’s conception and the first 13 years of his life. With a conversational tone that is never ponderous yet not quite comic, the narrator illuminates intimate details of Adolf’s parents’ sexual life, as well as their baby’s breast-feeding and bowel movements. It probes the sibling rivalries that result in the death of one brother (perhaps with Adolf’s complicity) and the departure of another, a wilder boy than young Adolf. It finds psychological significance in the ways that the Hitler parents relate to each child (and the way those relationships shift with new arrivals) as well as to each other. The novel also has a penchant for nicknames: “Adi” for Adolf, “Nicky” for Tsar Nicholas II (as the plot briefly abandons the Hitlers for Russia) and “Heini” for Himmler. Despite an exhaustive bibliography that indicates historical research, the narrator never claims that he is writing the secret history or the true story of the young Adolf Hitler. Instead, he maintains throughout that this work is a novel, which may be truer than the history that the narrator dismisses as “a pack of lies.” It turns out that the devil is in all sorts of details, from art to dreams to computer technology. Yet the questions persist: What is Mailer up to? Why does the narrative stop in the early teens of the future Führer? And why does Adolf keep having those inappropriate erections and ejaculations in the forest?
Alternately engaging, embarrassing and exasperating.