The Education of Arnold Hitler

Written by Marc Estrin
Review by Val Perry

In his second novel, Estrin takes the reader on a wildly entertaining, half-magical ride through the history and cultural changes facing America in the latter half of the twentieth century. Young Arnold Hitler, a nice kid from Texas with an unfortunate moniker, searches for meaning, God, and true love amid the chaos of desegregation protests in the Fifties, the tumult of Harvard student life in the Sixties, and the hard reality of life in the Bowery in the Seventies. Aided by occasional advice from Grandpa Jacobo—who speaks to him through Arnold’s left knee—our hero encounters real-life mentors and antagonists such as Noam Chomsky, Leonard Bernstein and Louis Feiser (inventor of napalm), is hunted and harassed by a descendant of Cotton Mather, and finds that few girls are willing to date a guy named Hitler.

Estrin writes in the same literary tradition as Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Pynchon and Tom Robbins, with a more generous dose of redemption and hope. Arnold manages to preserve his innocence without becoming jaded, or more importantly, annoying. Estrin, a former Unitarian Universalist minister, develops the themes of identity and exile without hammering them home, injecting just enough magic realism at just the right moments to prevent the novel from veering either into romp or despair. Despite a third act that drags just a bit, Arnold Hitler’s education—from Saussure to anti-Semitism, My Lai to the bunker—has plenty to enlighten the reader as well. Definitely not a light read, but definitely recommended.