When Marc Estrin, in the preface to his second novel, poses the question of what an education in post–World War II America would be like "for someone whose second name was Hitler," the project sounds curiously academic. Happily, the novel that follows is no theoretical exercise but a lively, sure-footed tale of a young man's struggle with language and what lies beneath it.
The lone connection between the Führer and the novel's protagonist, Arnold, is
a name, signifying nothing. As Arnold's mother says when she marries his father, it's clear "who was Hitler and who was only 'Hitler.'" And for much of Arnold's childhood, this distinction holds. He grows up in a small town in Texas during the era of reluctant integration; no one raises an eyebrow at his last name because there are far more incendiary words in circulation. Arnold's earliest memory, for example, centers on learning the word nigger, then learning not to say it aloud. This, along with other semiotic misadventures (such as conflating Saint Nick and Old Nick), leads Arnold to an interest in linguistics that, intriguingly, foreshadows, rather than emerges from, the challenges his last name will later come to pose. In high school, blessed with native intelligence, striking good looks, and a role as star quarterback on the football team, Arnold is a Renaissance man; he also happens to be a really nice guy. One wonders whether, having saddled his hero with such an impossible surname, Estrin felt obliged to give him every other conceivable social advantage. If so, it's hard to hold it against him.
It is only on entering the world of supposed adult sophistication (read: Harvard) that Arnold discovers how easily people are cowed—or worse, seduced—by his last name. When his name starts putting off college roommates and potential love interests, and attracting would-be fascists, Arnold responds with an earnest logic shaped by his childhood experience with the language of discrimination and further informed by the slippery political rhetoric surrounding the nation's crisis over the war in Vietnam. He is not afraid to ask for advice, and his consultation with a brusque, albeit sympathetic, Noam Chomsky is one of the high points of the book. Arnold's problem, the linguistics professor explains, is a case study in the power of figurative language: Names like Miller and Baker may be dead metaphors, but Hitler is "very much alive. And maybe he should be."
Chomsky is one of several of the era's key players with whom Arnold's life intersects, Forrest Gump–like (as a middle-school student on the grassy knoll that fateful day in Dallas, Arnold hears shots come from behind, pace the Warren Commission). But the novel's ruminations on linguistic expression are perhaps best served by Estrin's deft touch of magic realism: Arnold communicates with his maternal grandfather in Italy by speaking to him through his left knee, like a sort of two-way radio. Their connection, at once telepathic and corporeal, offers the integrity of a shared heritage to counter the rhetorical sway of Arnold's unfortunate last name. When the path of Arnold's education leads him to determine not only what he will be called but who he will be, it is the words that come from within him that prove most decisive.