From Publishers Weekly
Mailer did Jesus in The Gospel According to the Son
; now he plumbs the psyche of history's most demonic figure in this chilling fictional chronicle of Hitler's boyhood. Mailer tells the story through the eyes of Dieter, a devil tasked by Satan (usually called the Maestro) with fostering Hitler's nascent evil, but in this study of a dysfunctional 19th-century middle-class Austrian household, the real presiding spirit is Freud. Young Adolph (often called Adi) is the offspring of an incestuous marriage between a coarse, domineering civil servant and a lasciviously indulgent mom. The boy duly develops an obsession with feces, a fascination with power, a grandiose self-image and a sexually charged yen for mass slaughter (the sight of gassed or burning beehives thrills him). Dieter frets over Hitler's ego-formation while marveling at the future dictator's burning gaze, his ability to sway weak minds and the instinctive führerprinzip
that emerges when he plays war with neighborhood boys—talents furthered by Central Europe's ambient romantic nationalism. Mailer's view of evil embraces religions and metaphysics, but it's rooted in the squalid soil of toilet-training travails and perverted sexual urges. The novel sometimes feels like a psychoanalytic version of The Screwtape Letters
, but Mailer arrives at a somber, compelling portrait of a monstrous soul. (Jan. 23)
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In his first novel in more than a decade, Mailer continues to provoke. Only a writer with his temerity would attempt a novel interpreting perhaps the most notorious figure in modern history, Adolf Hitler. Obviously, this is not your usual historical novel (neither was the author's fictional foray into pharaonic Egypt, Ancient Evenings,
1983). Here the focus is on Hitler's childhood and youth and immediate forebears. This is less a psychological study of evil than a fanciful one: the story is narrated by a devil, one of the corps of devils working under Satan, who has chosen Hitler personally to do his "work." Mailer has worked out a whole system for (pardon the rhyme) levels of devils, which will strike the reader as corresponding to theological theories concerning the degrees of angels, and, like angels, the devils struggle within their "family" as family members do--that is, they struggle not only among themselves but also with Satan. Mailer is never an easy read; in this novel, as in all his fiction, subject matter, themes, and prose style make demands on readers' willingness or even ability to stay focused. Here he cannot be faulted for inadequate knowledge of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century central European history, but many readers will find the Satan-and-army-of-devils conceit a gimmick, perhaps even an offensive one, in trying to reach an understanding of evil. Other readers will be, as always, excited by Mailer's intelligence and creativity. Brad HooperCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved