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Like his debut novel, Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, Marc Estrinís sophomore effort follows an alienated protagonist as his life intersects with various historical events and flash points. Arnold Hitler, son of George Hitler, is born in Mansfield, Texas, enters elementary school in the mid í50s, and witnesses up close the wrenching drama of an early desegregation attempt. A high-school field trip take him to Dallas, where heís present at the Kennedy assassination and sees suspicious smoke rise from behind the Grassy Knoll. He enrolls at Harvard in time for the student rebellion, then moves to New York City, takes up residence in the Bowery, and visits the bowels of the city, where the mole people live. Finally he meets his soul mate, Evelyn Brown (i.e., Eva Braun), and begins to live uncertainly ever after.
The tone of all this is realistic except that Arnold communicates with his Jewish grandfather by talking to his knee. The book progresses mainly through a series of lectures delivered by the various characters our young Candide encounters on his journey to self-realization. But as the action moves from Mansfield to Cambridge and then New York, many of these characters donít converse so much as hold forth, Arnold asking questions to move the tedious erudition along. Also like Insect Dreams, the novel has celebrity guest stars. While in Cambridge Arnold visits Noam Chomsky at MIT; Chomsky delivers a brief tirade on the conforming effects of Harvard that, like many of the responses to Arnoldís name, isnít very helpful. Even less helpful, but rich in comedy, is Estrinís depiction of Leonard Bernstein, whom Arnold meets after he starts dating Lennyís daughter. Bernstein is a mess, alternately brilliant and blathering as he approaches a rehearsal of Mahlerís Second Symphony like a man on a mission to reinvent music.
Still, the onus of being named Hitler is secondary to the bookís attempt to depict the zeitgeist of the late í60s and early í70s. Estrin does capture the babble of fine minds spinning their wheels as they head for the fringes of society. But after a while it all seems too rich. After arriving in NYC, Arnold meets Virgil Wang, a/k/a Vdub, a chess hustler and fringe entrepreneur who introduces him to the Bowery, describing it as "illuminating and ecumenical. A land shared by the living, the dead, the almost dead, and the seemingly dead. But ruins, including human ruins, are rather poignant, donít you think? Before the residue of the once noble, our inward souls involuntarily bow." A little bit of this flowery locution is amusing; a lot can be numbing. And thereís a lot in The Education of Arnold Hitler.
A professional cellist (with the Vermont Philharmonic) and self-described political activist whoís also written a book about the Bread and Puppet Theater, Estrin didnít start writing novels until he was 58. (Heís now 65 and has a few more in the chute to follow this one.) That may explain his tendency to cram a lot of philosophical musing into his stories: he has a lifetime of learning, and by God, heís going to share it. But I think heíd be more effective if he were less ambitious. Arnold Hitler is like the guest who starts by dazzling you and ends by making you wish heíd go home.
Issue Date: July 15 - 21, 2005
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