Ten years after he dared to channel Jesus Christ, Norman Mailer has switched his attention southward - way southward.
In The Castle in the Forest, the 83-year-old literary lion adopts the first-person voice of a devil - one who is charged with minding Adolf Hitler, a man he calls "my most important client." This devil-narrator - not Satan himself, but a lieutenant - pops in and out of Hitler's early life, recounting his incestuous birth, the beatings received from a stern father, even his craven thoughts.
"I live with the confidence that I am in a position to understand Adolf," the narrator writes. "For the fact is that I know him. I must repeat. I know him from top to bottom."
It's a literary device that allows Mailer to run free, filling in the historical spaces and inner life that none of the books listed in his six-page bibliography can. Who, after all, can argue with a sulfurous spirit?
"I remain a devil, not a novelist," the narrator says about the manuscript. "It is more a memoir and certainly has to be most curious as a biography since it is as privileged as a novel. I do possess the freedom to enter many a mind."
He does not possess total freedom - that is the province of Satan himself, called the Maestro or the Evil One by his followers. He and his vast armies are arrayed against the forces of God - or, as the devils call him derisively, Dummkopf. Young Hitler, it comes as no surprise, quickly attracts the attention of the Maestro.
The novel's action takes place between 1837 and 1903, ending when Hitler is 14. That means the figure who emerges clearest is not the future Fuehrer, but his father, Alois Hitler, an egotistical, cold-hearted Austrian bureaucrat who cheats on his wives, impregnates his own daughter and bullies his family.
If you're hoping to find here the source of Hitler's evil - or evil itself, for that matter - Mailer's novel is unsatisfying. There's no single moment or sequence of events that possibly explains or foreshadows Hitler's horrors to come.
His father may have been stern and too ready with the belt, but his mother dearly loved him. His siblings may have gotten more attention, but he was always fed, schooled and doted upon. It's less a portrait of a monster as a young man than an illustration of Hannah Arendt's banality of evil.
This latest Mailer novel may be tedious as a Hitler biography, but it's still fascinating for its portrayal of the spectral, Milton-esque battles recounted by our devilish narrator, who writes in stilted, 19th-century prose seemingly translated from German.
In Mailer's imagination, devils and angels conduct unseen, shadowy tugs-of-war in which victories are measured in inches, partial souls, or a rare, undefended opening. Both sides etch human dreams, play on our guilt and conscience, gather intelligence. They hope, at best, to influence events - though it often ends in a stalemate.
Mailer's devil, it must be said, grows on you. He comes across as a classic middle manager, one who passes down orders to his minions, yet isn't privy himself to the Maestro's thoughts or, indeed, his long-term plans.
But he's also vain, as when he grouses about a boring assignment or one he thinks beneath his talents. And he can be unctuous: "The Maestro would be pleased," he purrs after creating a terrible bit of mischief.
For a devil, he's awfully human.
That, too, is what Adolf Hitler looks like, for better or worse, after nearly 500 pages of Mailer's first novel in a decade.
To be sure, there are glimpses here and there of the seeds in Hitler's youth that eventually lead to a global conflagration, to the unimaginable evil of the Holocaust, to such misery.
But it seems a second installment - plumbing Hitler's rise to power - could offer more insights into how this "all-too-modest-looking politician with his snippet of a mustache" becomes an all-too-real devil.
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