The prospect of this novel is enticing: Norman Mailer on Adolf Hitler. Mailer, who has fearlessly, full-throatedly tackled Marilyn Monroe, Jesus Christ, Lee Harvey Oswald, Picasso, Muhammad Ali and Gary Gilmore (among others), seemed to be taking on his biggest confrontation yet. This hefty book from an iconic American man of letters, now in his 84th year, seemed to promise that the familiar Mailerian audacity was in fine fettle. I wondered if, here, he might just match his masterwork, The Executioner's Song.

The Castle in the Forest is a baffling, meandering, self-indulgent curio of a book -- at moments brilliantly insightful and fascinating but more often prompting jaw-dropping incredulity.

Mailer has decided to investigate Hitler's immediate family: his father, Alois, his mother, Klara, their relatives and his siblings. The period covered is approximately 1837 to 1903, the lifespan of Hitler's father. When Alois died, Adolf was 14 years old, still a sub-average schoolboy. So far, so straightforward. But Mailer is not content with a third-person, historical account of the antecedents and early life of perhaps the most vicious man who has walked this Earth: He has decided instead to have his novel narrated by a devil. A middle-ranking devil, moreover -- not Satan himself ("The Evil One" or "The Maestro," as he's termed here), but a devil who has the Maestro's ear and whom we know as Dieter.

The Castle in the Forest has its own freakish cosmology -- one I found most uncongenial, not having any belief in supernatural beings of any category. You cannot read this novel without encountering passages such as: "Spirits like myself can attend events where they are not present. I was in another place, therefore, on the night Adolf was conceived. Yet I was able to ingest the exact experience by calling upon the devil (of lower rank) who had been in Alois' bed on the primal occasion. . . . A minor devil can, on the most crucial occasions, implore the Evil One to be present with him during the climax. (The Maestro encourages us to speak of him as the Evil One when he does choose to enter sexual acts, and on that occasion, he was certainly there.)" The book is replete with these asides. The tone is arch and pompous; the dialogue throughout reads as if badly translated from rudimentary German.

Mailer, in a long career full of bravura risk-taking (think Ancient Evenings and Harlot's Ghost), has taken perhaps his biggest risk ever. And yet his intention is not merely to suggest that Hitler is "the spawn of the devil" -- nothing so facile. When we strip away the toe-curling mumbo-jumbo of all this diabolism, a sober and thoroughly researched thesis is being proposed here: Hitler was the product of a fuming stew of routine peasant incest in rural Austria; his mother was at once Alois Hitler's niece and his daughter, the product of a random sex act between Alois and his half-sister Johanna.

The supposition is entirely possible and has been mooted by Hitler scholars. There is no firm evidence, but novelists need no firm evidence: They are free to go where academics, historians and journalists dare not tread. And much of what is buried in this maddening novel is highly engaging -- most notably the portrait of Hitler's father. Indeed, the book is far more about Alois than Adolf, and it's in the sustained depiction of this boorish, fornicating, self-important, minor provincial customs official that Mailer's great strengths as a novelist shine: his feeling for character and detail, his empathy for the unworthy and the sly, his wit. Like a sculptor facing the lumpy, daunting block of marble that is The Castle in the Forest, the reader wants desperately to hew out the real, serious novel that is hidden within.

Mailer knows Hitler's life intimately (as do I, having spent a year writing a six-hour film drama of his rise to power), and his insights and intuition into how that warped mind was influenced and grew are genuinely intriguing, if occasionally a bit too apt. Hitler was insane -- incontrovertibly, I would say -- and his mania may well be explained (as might his alleged solitary testicle) by the complex incestuous web of his parentage. But in this novel, the ludicrous superstructure of devils and angels obfuscates the argument most damagingly. ·

William Boyd's latest novel is "Restless."


By Norman Mailer

Random House. 477 pp. $27.95