You don't normally expect to open a novel and find it to be about incest, Heinrich Himmler, bee keeping, toilet training, Satanic machinations, the coronation of Russia's Czar Nicholas II, and the origins of fascism, but those are just some of the toppings on the party pizza of Norman Mailer's latest, "The Castle in the Forest," his fictionalized account of the family and youth of Adolf Hitler. The story is narrated for us by one D.T., a character who reveals himself to be a lieutenant in the army of the Maestro, aka the Evil One, who has found in the young Adi Hitler (or Hiedler) a recruit for his war against the creator of the universe, a doddering deity (we are told) he refers to as D.K. or Dummkopf.
Mailer can get away with such off-the-wall stuff because he is Mailer, and inspired crackpot has always been a part of his M.O. Also because he will turn 84 this month, an age at which we expect a man of his habits -- drinker, boaster, doper, boxer, controversialist, prodigious father of nine children and grandfather of ten, writer of wayward and unpredictable genius, radical gone conservative, tragic booster of criminals (Jack Henry Abbott), scourge of feminists, rogue, pen for hire, former womanizer, talk-show terrorist, advertiser of himself, would-be mayor of New York -- to be tuckered out and glassy-eyed in some managed-care facility. Yet here he is going another fifteen rounds with The Novel.
Wouldn't it be headline news if Mailer had pulled himself together and written a stunning book proclaiming that the champ is back? No such luck. The champ is not back -- this isn't "The Armies of the Night" for the 21st century.
But neither is Mailer face down in the ring as he was in 1997 after publishing the egregious Jesus book, "The Gospel According to the Son." With "The Castle in the Forest" Mailer has at least fought The Novel to a respectable draw.
His all-time favorite book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, may still rend her garments and dial 911 over the sky high testosterone levels in this book, but Mailer has struck a blow for all of literature's growing AARP brigade with a demonstration that you needn't lose it if you still use it.
But then, I wish I could say what exactly "The Castle in the Forest" is about, since at best it appears to be a swamp trek through the genealogy of Adolf Hitler, looking for a Jewish ancestor and coming down firmly on the side of maybe. It all hinges on whether his paternal grandmother, Maria Anna Schickelgruber, had been made pregnant by the 19-year-old son of a merchant named Frankenberger for whom she had worked as a domestic.
Rumors that the man had offered her support for her son Alois (Hitler's father) until he was fourteen were never substantiated, and Mailer never succeeds in distinguishing fact from rumor.
Issue number two is whether there was incest in Hitler's past and whether, as Mailer has Heinrich Himmler (or Heini) proclaim, incest is standard behavior among the peasants of Germany.
Raising those issues only to walk away from them, Mailer goes off on a sprawling history of the Schickelgruber-Hiedler-Hitler clan, whose main figure is Adolph's father Alois (or Alois Senior), a bureaucrat, a customs official, a drinker, a seducer, a keeper of bees and beater of his children. In this book Adolf is virtually a footnote to Alois, who gets so much attention due to his goatish appetites and later on his obsession with bees.
The lessons Adolf and his older brother Alois Junior learn from the birds and the bees are essentially lessons in perfect collaboration and perfect sacrifice: fascist lessons. The law of bees: One colony must survive. It is pure Nietzschean Ubermensch stuff.
Then there is the spiritualist backstory that has events stage managed by D.T. and the Maestro, who find in Adolph a promising disciple whom they seed with "dream etchings" that alter the course of his life. D.T. is sort of a guerilla warrior against Dummkopf and his angels, who are called Cudgels here (don't ask why), and sees his Maestro as the equal of the creator, who was once omnipotent but may be losing it. God may also be eligible for managed care.
Mailer has wheeled out this homebrewed spirit business before. It had a major rehearsal in his book about the space program: "Of a Fire on the Moon," and it was as cornball then as it is cornball now. Maybe the best that the book has to offer is an interlude in Russia where D.T. is sent in 1895-6 for the coronation of Nicholas II. Being basically just historical reconstruction, it is also one of the most vivid parts of the book.
The juxtaposition of the coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra with the brutalization of the peasants at the riot in Khodynskoe Field makes its point well enough. It sets the scene for the Russian Revolution twenty years later. And if it seems to be an homage to the Rolling Stones and "Sympathy for the Devil," well, it just might be.
Possibly, the entire book is.
Who would have predicted that in his old age Mailer would come to resemble, more than anyone else, the Yiddish master Isaac Bashevis Singer? "The Castle in the Forest" is such a novel as Singer might have written: tragically sexual (that is, sex is a gateway to demonic possession), rambunctiously metaphysical, invoking nasty spiritual beings to account for human behavior, and dogmatically Manichean, seeing in this life an eternal struggle between good and evil, in which evil is always more interesting.
Mailer, whose Jewishness has never been more than vestigial, has availed himself of a Jewish metaphysics in drawing a portrait of the young Hitler that might be drawn from some haphazard application of Kabbalah, but Kabbalah as it might be interpreted by such learned scholars as Madonna or Roseanne. Kornball Kabbalah.
Did I say that Mailer fought the novel to a draw here? It could be that he was only shadowboxing. It's hard to tell.
Mark Shechner is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.
The Castle in the Forest: A Novel
By Norman Mailer
Random House, 477pages, $27.95.