Estrin’s novel is an unusually rich work of fiction, designed for the common reader and the connoisseur alike. It depicts the growth and development of a partly Jewish boy (his maternal grandfather was Jewish) born on December 25 and determined to retain his troublesome family name: Hitler. The novel is a bildungsroman; an extended treatise on names and naming as a high concept; a compendium of ideological discussions (the legal principle of “separate but equal,” feminist doctrine, an inquiry into the social realities of language, etc.); a gathering of relevant literary references (Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, John Howard Griffin’s memoir, Black Like Me, “The Great Chain of Being,” I. L. Peretz’s Bontche Shweig); and a body of Jewish lore and concerns (“Who is a Jew?” gematria, a pointed comparison of Judaism and Christianity, becoming Jewish without being chosen and without the woeful, painful Jewish history). Estrin’s realistic picture of smalltown Bible Belt Texas life contrasts with his other picture of the frenzied New York life of art, music, and sophisticated sexual pairings. There are many other fascinating aspects about Arnold’s life. Nearing the end of this book, the reader wonders: will Arnold overcome the onus of his family name, find true love at last and come up with a way to live with his Jewishness? Estrin finally resolves those tricky issues.
Samuel I. Bellman is professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University of Pomona. He has been writing on Jewish American writers since 1959.