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Hitler in New Jersey

PIOUS SECRETSBy Irene Dische

Viking, $18.95

Reviewed by David Walton

Among forms of art, a first novel enjoys a special dispensation: We applaud it for its boldness and invention and style, and forgive its failures of balance and plausibility. Irene Dische, an American writer living in Berlin, has come up with a premise that is nothing short on daring: that after the war Hitler went into hiding in Palmerston North, N.J.

Put that way, Pious Secrets sounds like a tale for the National Enquirer, or the American Inquirer, as it's called here. But Dische, who has already had a success with this novella in Germany and is about to publish it in six more countries, is very artful in how she comes upon her tale.

Pious Secrets begins in the New York City morgue, where Connie Bauer is one of the pathologists. Connie, says Dische, has a bosom so maternal she has developed a peculiar dissection style, "hunching her back and pulling in her stomach, reminiscent of a cat standing on her hind legs to play with a ball of string." The secretaries, Alice and Blessed, favor her dictation for her cute German accent.

Connie is separated from her husband, Stanislaw, a Polish emigre scientist who will win the Nobel Prize in the early pages of this novel, and she and her two children live now with her father, Carl Bauer, recently widowed of Eva.

Connie's daughter, Sally, comes to believe that "Opa" is Hitler (heavier, older, but still with that moustache), and passes this information along to Ronald Hake, a pathologist from the morgue whom Connie is beginning to see romantically _ and who, in his methodical way, begins to construct a clinical analysis of the possibility Carl Bauer may really be Adolf Hitler.

Not all of this comes off, but Dische writes exceptionally well, and she hits pay dirt with some unexpected bits, especially Stanislaw Reich, the Nobel Prize winner, who in the novel's best scene throws a wonderful tantrum in a television showroom. Connie is an effectively drawn character _ a fascinating, an inspired character.

Dische's best creation though is Carl Bauer, Sally's Opa, a man of perfect ordinariness whose greatest wish is to be taken as a native American, and greatest fear _ delivered with awful literalness in this book _ is to be exposed as a foreigner.

Pious Secrets suffers from underdevelopment and is a little overthoughtful for my taste, though other readers may not find it that way. Only 147 pages long, it's deceptively slim. It's a better book than Symposium, the latest novel by Muriel Spark, whose economy and sly humor and fascination with Roman Catholicism Dische shares.

If nothing else, Pious Secrets is a terrific portrayal of American life in the 1950s. And if not totally successful in itself, it's interesting as the debut novel by a writer whom I'm confident we'll be hearing much more from in the future.

David Walton is writer who lives in Pittsburgh.

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