THE CASTLE IN THE FOREST, by Norman Mailer, Random House, 477 pages, $27.95
Take the widely beloved Christmas story — replete with its holy family, immaculate conception and a heavenly host of angels — then turn the story on its ear and pen its literary opposite.
That's essentially what Norman Mailer does in his first novel in years — "The Castle in the Forest." Instead of taking a fictional turn on the life of Christ (he did that earlier), one of America's most venerable and divisive writers sets his sights on a 20th century anti-Christ: Adolf Hitler.
What was the genesis of Adolf Hitler's historic evil? And was the Nazi Fuhrer a product of his early environment — or some sinister genetic trait? In a novel described as "fiction closely based on history," Mailer examines both questions.
But the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author also drives home another reason for Hitler's horrific actions: The devil made him do it. The repulsive story of Hitler's beginnings and the years leading up to his adolescence is told by one of Satan's lieutenants. An "instrument of the Evil One" who was assigned to oversee young Adolf's upbringing.
But Mailer's narrator is no fire-spitting cartoon imp. Milton, in fact, might have imagined this demon, for which the business of claiming souls for the dark side is clinical, even corporate. He refers to Satan as the "Mae-
stro," while promising targets such as Hitler are called "clients."
Mailer's Adolf Hitler was the byproduct of incest, a multi-generational family practice/taboo that caught the attention of the devil's minions. Adolf's father, Alois Hitler, was an ambitious and lascivious peasant who became a high-ranking Austrian customs official before returning to his rural roots.
His third wife, Klara, was both Hitler's mother and half-sister.
It's little surprise that a fictionalized attempt to capture the beginnings of Adolf Hitler makes for uneasy reading. Mailer pulls few punches describing the sexual deviance of the Hitler family that pounds home the evil that one day orchestrates the Holocaust.
Now 83, Mailer remains a novelist from an earlier age. Only a few of today's storytellers — most successfully Phillip Roth and Tom Wolfe — carry the weight, skill and, frankly, ego to approach this sort of "historical" story. Mailer is aware that his readers already know of Hitler's infamy. Here the novelist presents a novel, albeit antagonizing, voice.
Mailer's keen imagination is also on display as he divines childhood moments that spawned Adolf Hitler's oratory, charisma, his notions of a master race — even the genocidal tactics enlisted in the concentration camps for which "The Castle in the Forest" is ironically named.