The Castle in the Forest
By Norman Mailer
Random House. 467 pp. $27.95
Imagine a different April 1945. Red Army troops pull a bedraggled Adolf Hitler out of his bunker rabbit hole.
Before long the dentist is yanking back Hitler's head to inspect his teeth. For several years the former Führer alternately rants and ruminates to world media, his trial for crimes against humanity lumbering to its inevitable verdict.
As Hitler stands on the Nuremburg gallows, surprisingly statesmanlike - by then totally overexposed to newspaper readers, radio listeners and newsreel buffs - a few Jewish witnesses to the execution chant "Mazel tov! Mazel tov!", for which they're later rebuked.
Would Hitler still have attracted hundreds of biographies, studies, histories, and novels after World War II? Would Norman Mailer, at 84, think the little painter worth another round in his first novel in 10 years?
Doubtful. By escaping his up-close and personal moment with the non-Nazi world through suicide, Hitler forced that world to investigate his uniquely destructive life and times. For decades, the publishing world churned out books to the refrain "Hitler, We Hardly Knew Ye!"
But eventually we did - through 900-page biographies, multivolume histories, pinpoint studies of everyone who ever crossed his path. The world learned what it needed to know. Which makes continuing books about him more suspect.
Yet "even today," we're told by the narrator of The Castle in the Forest, Mailer's imaginative but misbegotten approach to young Adolf, "the first obsession remains Hitler. Where is the German who does not try to understand him?"
All over Germany, would be the answer. Been there, done that. Many Americans feel the same.
Similarly, the narrator later claims "the world has an impoverished understanding of Adolf Hitler's personality. Detestation, yes, but understanding of him, no - he is, after all, the most mysterious human being of the century."
Nonsense. Hitler is history's most overanalyzed psychopath.
So why a novel putatively about Hitler until age 16? The answer seems to be that Mailer, as often before, wants to associate himself with a subject of paramount historical importance. Hitler remains the ultimate touchstone, to writers of his generation, for meditating about evil.
Fair enough. An immortal like Mailer deserves the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, a third factor gets in the way. The more you read Castle, the more you feel you're reading a book about Norman Mailer.
The narrator of this bizarre intermingling of Hitler's family and, one surmises, Mailer's thoughts on his own sexuality and big brood, asks the reader to call him D.T., short for Dieter. At first he presents himself as an SS officer in 1938. He worked under Himmler, assigned to look into Hitler's family background.
About 70 pages in, however, we learn that D.T. is really a "higher devil" who works for Satan himself (a.k.a., the Maestro and Evil One) in the eons-long clash with the deity German-speaking devils call the D.K., for Dummkopf. (That German-speaking devils use a two-letter abbreviation for a single German word is one of many quality-control problems in Mailer's effort to evoke German atmosphere.)
The narrator entered Dieter's body, just as he's entered others for centuries. It's how Satan's cadres get close to "clients," swaying their choices. As part of his mission, Dieter segued back to Adolf's childhood.
With that dubious setup, The Castle in the Forest turns out to be not all that much about little Adolf or "Adi." Instead, it devotes most of its attention to Hitler's (partly imagined) family roots. At the center is Hitler's father, Alois, his much-younger third wife, Klara Poelzl (Hitler's mother) - Alois' putative niece, but perhaps his daughter - and how Alois views his young bride and children.
As the Wizard might say, pay no attention to that Provincetown paterfamilias behind the curtain with nine kids, many women and exes, and the much-younger wife for 30 years.
Alois is, at mid-book, "a man in his late middle age who dangled a wizened pup between his legs," with "a total of eight kids alive or dead," though you "could add a few not exactly accounted for. . . ."
Expect Castle to offer penetrating insights about Adolf? Hold off. The narrator's few observations on young Adi stay pedestrian ("He was outrageously in need of love and damnably vulnerable").
Meanwhile, we hear lots about Alois' beekeeping and prodigal sexuality, beginning in the days when "he made love to each of the three women he could look upon as regulars," including a 19-year-old waitress.
"She had kept the formal entrance to her chastity intact," writes Mailer, in the style of 1950s paperback pornography, "but the same could not be said of her neighbor." (Don't ask.) We hear much about Alois' "Hound" and its ability to poke.
Here is Alois, in his 50s, as he takes niece Klara from her room to his bed: "Half her body was on fire, but half was locked in ice, the bottom half. If not for the Hound, he might have stalled at the approach to such a frozen entry, but then her mouth was part of the fire and she kissed him as if her heart was contained in her lips, so rich, so fresh, so wanton a mouth that he exploded even as he entered her. . . ."
More Hitler material please!!! Saddam material!!! Anything but this!!!
Indeed, after such repeated priapic passages and plenty of scatological attention to "Adi's pip-squeak of an anus" and "Adolf's bowel movements," one begins to feel that the Lech in Winter, the diaper-changer of nine, can't pull himself away from sex and excretion to think about much else, even his official high historical agenda.
"I remain a devil, not a novelist," admits the narrator at one point.
You said it.
Add to this many stylistic problems. Early on, the narrator tells us in regard to Hitler, "To borrow from the Americans, given their rough grasp of vulgarity, I am prepared to say: 'Yes, I know him from asshole to appetite." Here, as often, neither the German tone nor American syntax rings.
Structural choices in the novel also make little sense. At one point, the narrator launches a 47-page digression about "Nicky" and "Alix" (Nicholas II and Alexandra) while conceding: "I know by now that not even a loyal reader can stay true to an author who is ready to leave his narrative for an apparently unrelated expedition."
As The Castle crumbles, the narrator appears to know he's in trouble: "[I]t must be obvious by now," he declares, "that there is no clear classification for this book. It is more than a memoir and certainly has to be most curious as a biography since it is as privileged as a novel."
Mailer reportedly plans to continue the saga, taking Hitler into manhood. Halten Sie, bitte! Do we need Hitler refracted through the libido of a horny old writer - with magnificent past accomplishments - who's still a prisoner of sex?
Norman, wonderful Norman, a request. Before the eyes, ears and legs aren't the only parts gone south, give us that unvarnished, tell-all memoir. It would instantly become a key history of late 20th-century America.
Call it Me, Myself and I, or even Ich und Mich if it makes you happy. But leave Hitler alone. He needs no further advertisements. Neither do you.
Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.