Before I commence to praise -- no, rave about -- Burlington writer Marc Estrin's new novel, The Education of Arnold Hitler, I need to confess that I'm a bit intimidated by the assignment, both his and mine. I don't write fiction, and I'm amazed at the mixture of erudition, imagination and sureness of purpose that went into the creation of a work as sharp and enticing as this.
Estrin's official biography describes him as "a writer, cellist and activist living in Burlington, Vermont." He's a member of the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the author of Rehearsing With Gods ("an examination of The Bread &; Puppet Theater") and a highly praised first novel, Insect Dreams -- The Half Life of Gregor Samsa (Blue Hen Publishing, 2002). The latter is a riff, or extended meditation, on The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka's hair-raising tale of "a man turned inexplicably into vermin," as Estrin explains in an online interview, "alienated from all others."
"Most people don't like cockroaches," Estrin remarks; "others are equally wary of Kafka. I love both." On publication, Insect Dreams won such critical accolades as to send any writer's head spinning ("Brilliant . . . compelling . . . arresting . . . strikingly original . . . wrenching, funny, learned and, at times, poetic"). I confess I've had to tear myself away from reading it in order to get this review finished on time. About now, I'd read the phone book if it were written by Marc Estrin, and I can "critique" The Education of Arnold Hitler only with my eyes wide open with wonder.
Before I gush any further, some introduction is in order. The "Arnold Hitler" of Estrin's title is not, repeat, not related in any way to "the" Hitler, the uniquely evil master of the Third Reich. All they share is a surname and initials, the central conceit of Estrin's tale. Arnold is a boy from Mansfield, Texas, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth. Blond, handsome, strong, Aryan, a football star and future Harvard graduate, his "earliest detailed memory is of being held above a crowd by his father," George, to watch the burning of a cross on the lawn of Mansfield High. It is 1956, the era of court-ordered desegregation, and, as Arnold overhears, "Three niggers think they're gonna register this morning." In fact, they don't; their path is blocked by a phalanx of Mansfield's roused and racist white citizenry.
"Three niggers," Arnold repeats aloud.
"Don't say 'nigger,'" his mother replies. So Arnold says it to himself: "Nigger, nigger, nigger." It is his first confrontation with the symbolic and finally arbitrary meaning and usage of words. This is mightily confusing to a boy with a sensitive mind, who thinks too much, broods a lot and cries easily.
"He said 'nigger,'" Arnold protests to his father. "Why can't I say 'nigger'?"
"Different people talk differently," George Hitler explains. "We don't say 'nigger' in this family. We say 'Negro'." For Arnold, this is no solution. And he will find, later on, that the name "Hitler" carries its own power, regardless of his own, innocent relation to it.
One who "talks differently" in Mansfield, Texas, is Arnold's mother Anna, an Italian native. She met his father when George, fighting the Nazis in Ferrara at the end of World War II, tossed a hand grenade through the window of what might have been a synagogue -- the building had a Star of David on the door -- and blew off one of Anna's legs before subsequently saving her life. The Hitlers' unlikely romance is at first uncomplicated, either by George's surname or the fact that Anna's father is Jewish. In small-town Texas, they live like anyone else. Mansfield is racist in only a stupid, unthinking way. As Estrin makes clear, it's a town where the only real crime is "agitation," "stirring things up."
George Andrew Hitler, Estrin writes, born in 1924, grew up at a time when it was fine to be so named. Until the age of nine, his last name was neither here nor there -- just another moniker, that of his own father, Tom. From nine to eighteen, the homonym was noticed by only a minority of North Texans whose newspaper reading went beyond the sports page, the funnies, the local letters and obits. And for them it was Adolf Hitler, if anyone, who seemed the imposter, some German politician who had made off with George's good name.
But for Arnold it will become a torture -- an existential agony that gives Estrin room to roam the whole map of 20th-century political, philosophical, metaphysical, religious, historical and linguistic concerns. In an early conversation with his mother, the course of Arnold's life and preoccupations is defined and revealed:
"Why is a fox called a fox?" he asked.
"It's called a fox just in English. In Italy, it's called un volpe."
"But it's a fox? The same fox?"
"It's the same fox, but it has a different name."
"How can it have a different name if it's the same?"
"I don't know. It just does. Italians call things differently than Americans."
He began to cry.
After Arnold badly burns his hand at the age of 4, Anna, in an effort to distract him, says that "if he would put his left knee to his mouth" he can speak directly to "Nonno Jacobo," his Jewish grandfather in Italy, who, she insists, "would feel a tickling in his left knee, and put his ear to it and listen, and he would be able to hear Arnold."
Sure enough, it works. Even Anna, who knows about legs, is mystified: "This was a little uncanny." But with this deft, unforced touch of magic realism, Estrin gives Arnold a friend and a mentor, whose voice will guide him, instruct him, soothe him, counsel him and confound him for years to come.
"Names are important," Jacobo advises. "Words are important . . . Death and life are in the power of the tongue." And another time: "Your life, Arnold, consider your life. The Jewish God is a god of onward -- and onward is you. ... Anything you do can be a channel to God -- or it can be a wall."
To talk too much about the actual story of Arnold's adventures would be a disservice to both author and reader. As a teenager, Arnold becomes an expert on the Kennedy assassination as a well as a football star. He finds a girlfriend and gets to "third base." After high school, he heads to Harvard, where no one will room with him on account of his name; where he struggles with the protests and violent unrest of the Vietnam era, meets Noam Chomsky and Leonard Bernstein; debates becoming a "full-fledged" Jew; is approached for enlistment in a proto-fascist student organization; has an affair with a female professor; falls in love with Bernstein's daughter; confronts the fury of nascent feminism; and emerges, so he thinks, no wiser than before.
"He seemed more bent and less handsome than he had been," Estrin observes. "There was a new tremor in his hand. His eyes were deeper in his skull. His mind was a question mark, walking." After Harvard, it's New York, no job, no friends, no money, strangers in the park and a stint on the Bowery, before Arnold meets an artist called Evelyn Brown. "Evelyn" being a diminutive for the original woman, "Eve," or, in German, "Eva" -- a point that Estrin does not belabor and leaves his readers to discern. The whole of the book is told in the same style of understatement, inference, suggestion and wonderment, at the same time never pausing at the expense of narration. The Education of Arnold Hitler is not just a book for the mind, but for the soul, the heart and pleasure.
If I have a quibble with Estrin's novel -- and I feel like an amateur saying so -- it's that the women in the story all tend to be and sound exactly the same. All of them are bright as hell; all of them know their own minds and speak to Arnold in tones of instruction and exasperated affection. But, perhaps, in a way, this is a true reflection of the choices we do make in our lovers and friends: As with everything else -- and finally, too, in Arnold's case -- we endow the words we hear and speak with meanings all our own.