Arnold Hitler novel confuses polemic with satire

Marc Estrin is a talented writer with much to say about contemporary American life. Unfortunately, Estrin in the follow-up to his successful debut, “Insect Dreams,” cannot resist gimmickry, which weakens his writing and his message.

To be exact, Estrin’s creation of a central character named Arnold Hitler in “The Education of Arnold Hitler” is not cute or ironic or even a good window into the America of the post-World War II era. It is unnecessary and it is a mistake.

Arnold, in Estrin’s tale, is the son of a Texas-born American GI and his half-Jewish Italian war bride. Arnold grows up in Mansfield, Texas, home of white racism and home also of the great anti-racist writer John Howard Griffin, the author of “Black Like Me,” who had to flee to Mexico after the publication of his most famous book. Arnold himself is brilliant, sweet, handsome and no Hitler but an innocent Billy Budd.

The reader is asked to believe that neither Arnold nor his father nor his half-Jewish mother would have reservations about keeping the name that is synonymous with the genocide of the Jewish people.

And when Arnold is admitted during the turbulent late 1960s to Harvard, the reader is likewise led to believe that aversion to the name Hitler from both Jewish and non-Jewish students is the result of their inability to distinguish a monster from a saint.

Estrin makes things too easy for himself. Not only his characters’ name, but the entire novel is marred by a political program that confuses polemic with satire.

Thus Estrin’s heroes, who appear during the Harvard sequences, include Noam Chomsky, who is always identified as “honest” and fair. Likewise, Leonard Bernstein’s belief, stated in the novel, that Hiroshima was the beginning of the nightmare and genocidal world we find ourselves in — is not challenged by any character. But saying Chomsky is honest does not make him so. And what if one believes, especially in a book with Hitler in the title, that Auschwitz ushered in the age of barbarity and that Hitler’s name will forever be cursed, the true villain of human history? And that Harry Truman was no Hitler?

From Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, America’s greatest satirists have been able to hold a mirror not only up to society but also to themselves. Twain, Bruce and Sahl, for example, took on the self-righteousness of their own “side,” thus rising above scoring easy victories.

Estrin has some scores with America he would like to settle. He wants us to see the raw facts of American apartheid of the 1950s and how it poisoned places like Mansfield, Texas. He wants to describe once again the brutality of big-time Texas high school football and how a false sense of machismo literally and figuratively crippled many young men. He wants us to see how women’s proscribed roles in the 1950s and most of the 1960s were wrong and limiting. These are not original arguments but Estrin’s passion stands out and his writing is barbed and often hits its mark, though it is a mark that has been hit many times before.

Great novelists can be great editorialists. But Estrin, who has such powerful gifts of imagination and characterization, needed to write a riskier novel and not hide behind a sophomoric joke.

That novel would be about a boy born in 1950 America whose father was a battle weary GI and whose mother a half-Jewish Italian who lost a leg in World War II. The boy grows up in a small Texas town and later goes to Harvard. Call him Arnold Smith, not Arnold Hitler, and let his conflicts and sensitivities — about being a reluctant football hero, about not serving in Vietnam, about being part Jewish with an Italian Jewish grandfather who survived WWII — have full play.

Take the Hitler out of Arnold and you have a novel that an American Dickens might attempt.

“The Education of Arnold Hitler” by Marc Estrin (336 pages, Unbridled Books, $15.95).