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The Castle in the Forest

By Norman Mailer

Random House, 477 pages, $34.95

The Castle in the Forest is a novel that explores the early life of Adolf Hitler. It's narrated by Dieter, a demonic agent of Satan. Dieter is sent to northern Austria in the late 19th century by his boss to ensure that young "Adi" -- the product of an incestuous coupling between an uncle and a niece, presided over by Satan himself -- has a childhood formation worthy of the terrible achievements that are expected of him.

This formation features encounters with a molesting beekeeper and bouts of frenzied honey eating; a great deal of reactionary peeing and defecation; blood-rushing erections inspired by Aryan classmates; sadistic play with dogs, dead rats and brothers; psycho-sexual tensions with mother and sister; a Father Figure; gender-bending identity anxieties; prefigured images of fascist self-loathing, willpower and extermination; and, finally, the young Hitler ranging through the dark woods around his home, masturbating and roaring at trees.

Hitler's family is peripatetic and dysfunctional, featuring a tyrannically mediocre sex-glutton of a father, Alois, who calls his penis the Hound, and a devout, guilt-wracked mother named Klara, who, after losing a succession of the children she's brought into the world with her uncle, eventually pledges her very Catholic soul to the Devil, to keep at least her beloved little Adolf alive. It works.

The story brings us to Hitler's adolescence; its diverse elements are accompanied by extended musings from Dieter -- on the experience of creating such a book, on the business of being a demonic agent and on his relationship to the Maestro (his name for his boss).

We're also told of their constant struggles against God and His angels, known as Dumkopf and the Cudgels. At one point, there's a 45-page excursion to late-19th-century Russia, where Dieter involves himself in intrigues surrounding the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II.

All this for more than 400 pages, in which one also finds such stretches of writing, about sex in particular, that can only speak for themselves. But this is a family newspaper, not cable-TV, so a paraphrase will have to suffice.

In Dieter's account of how Adolf Hitler came to be, we learn that "one hot summer night," Klara, his future mother, positions herself atop her incapacitated Uncle Alois, his future father. She then tries to awaken his "Hound" as best she can. She must work hard at it, and does so "with an avidity that could only come from the Evil One -- that she knew." Her efforts pay off: "Alois had been so limp. But now he was a man again!" As the two unite, according to an excited Dieter, Klara perceives that "she was giving herself over to the Devil, yes, she knew he was there, there with Alois and herself, all three loose in the geyser that came out of him. . . . and indeed," sings the demon-narrator, "I knew the moment when creation occurred. Even as the Angel Gabriel served Jehovah on a momentous night in Nazareth, so too was I there with the Evil One at this conception on this July night nine months and ten days before Adolf Hitler would be born, on April 20, 1889."

To be as fair as one can, this is a sex scene described by a demonic agent having a rollicking good time. Certain excesses are to be expected of such an outlandish premise. But aren't we asked to make this kind of allowance nearly every time Norman Mailer writes a book?

In its range of subjects and consistency of ambition, Mailer's decades-long quest to write something as worthy as Moby-Dick is a testament, at the very least, to his agreeing to the monomaniacal compact of attempting The Great American Novel. And since breaking onto the scene some 60 years ago with The Naked and the Dead, a searing account of young men fighting for a pile of dirt and another day in the Second World War, Mailer has frequently gone after subjects that seem sizable enough to match up with this ambition, and with his own capacities of imagining and analysis.

The effort has inspired him to write about Hollywood, Vietnam and ancient Egypt; he's taken on the CIA, feminism, presidential politics and Gore Vidal; the lives he's moved through include those of Kennedy, Marilyn, Picasso, Lee Harvey Oswald, Christ and, frequently, his own.

The result, after thousands upon thousands of pages, has been far from even. That's because Mailer is both Ahab-as-author and another classic American type. He's the literary equivalent of a home-run junkie; he approaches every at-bat, regardless of what's happening in the game or the strength of his swing, as a fresh chance to knock it out of the park. Strikeouts, foul balls, suspensions for stabbing his wife, endless brush-back pitches -- all be damned. Every at-bat's a fresh chance at glory.

And now, at 84, and with 10 years since his previous book, he brings out a novel about Hitler, a historical fiction cum folksy mythology cum garrulous demon's memoir about Hitler. The Castle in the Forest can be understood as part of Mailer's ongoing quest to make sense of cruddy modern existence within the context of receding virtues and higher-order forces of Good and Evil -- as he attempted in his acclaimed books The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song.

But this new effort can also be understood -- and it should be -- as another ill-conceived, self-indulgent exercise from an aging writer who's never been shy of taking on Big Names with his particular combination of psychological speculation, eccentric mythology and historical hallucination.

What's worse than Mailer on Picasso, or even Mailer on Christ, however, is that in going after Adolf Hitler, Mailer tries to recreate the most singularly over-determined figure of the 20th century. The challenge sends him into a chaotic fit of reimagining and reworking. In trying to write past Hitler's biography and historical immensity, he draws on Joyce, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Milton. The greatest achievement of this book is that it makes you want to read their books instead.

Mailer ventures down any number of absurd, intersecting paths in trying to make sense of awful little "Adi," while seeking rhetorical cover for the effort with constant reminders of the novel's fantastic frame and premise. But these reminders instead work as advertisements of the novel's inherent confusion, as in this aside from Dieter to the reader: "Indeed, it must be obvious by now that there is no clear classification for this book. It is more than a memoir and certainly has to be most curious as a biography since it is as privileged as a novel."

Only Dieter is wrong here; there is a clear classification. This is a Norman Mailer book, which means it's grandly ambitious, another wild swing at the fences, another long, loud, foul ball.

Randy Boyagoda is a professor of American literature at Ryerson University. His first novel, Governor of the Northern Province, was long-listed for the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Simon Houpt's interview with Norman Mailer appears today on page R4.