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By Ben Winters

MAY 15, 2000: 

Katastrophe by Randall Boyll (Harper Collins), $25, 543 pages

In more than 500 preposterous pages of "Katastrophe," there is not a single scene that approaches believability. There is not a single character that is deeply or consistently realized; not the bad guys, not the cops, neither the hero nor the heroine. None of the situations ring true -- not one.

What "Katastrophe" does have is a compelling simplicity: There's this fella named Hank Thorwald who turns out to be the reincarnation of Hitler... or is he? In a scene reminiscent of "Stir of Echoes," another fantastically stupid pseudo-thriller, Hank is hypnotized by a friend (or... is he?), regresses past the point of conception and announces in fluent German that he is the Fuhrer. As it happens, sleazy investigative reporter Alan Weston -- who doesn't care about anybody but himself... or does he? -- witnesses it all, and blows the creepy party trick into an international incident.

All of this is pure silliness, of course, but in the hands of a Stephen King or a Dean R. Koontz, pure silliness becomes a treasure in its own right; silliness evolves into sublimity. But whatever magical touch it is that allows certain writers to escape their own implausibilities and spin idiocy into gold, Randall Boyll does not have it: He just spins and spins, leaving us with a big pile of idiocy.

Like the crowds of neo-Nazis rumbling with "Jewish Defense League heavies" on the Thorwald's front lawn. Like the principal villain, a German count named Von Wessenheim, who involves poor Hank in his life-long scheme to find the burial place of Hitler. Or like the dark and mysterious Ronna Ulgard, whose basic composition as a character changes virtually every time he appears. Boyll hints over and over again at Ulgard's terrible secret -- signified by the black gloves he always, always wears -- the revelation of which is so unsatisfying that it made me want to fling the book against the wall.

What "Katastrophe" left me wondering about wasn't the fate of the Thorwald family or the evidence for past lives or the scandalous irresponsibility of the media (another theme that Boyll tries to drum in), but the persistence of Hitler and his war as a part of our culture. We don't need hypnotism or voodoo, the Furher is reincarnated every day: On thousands of racist, hateful Web pages; in editorials looking for a convenient parallel to Milosevic or Castro; in books like this. One can't slough off the demons of a century so easily, nor simply flush them out of the system, as Boyll tries -- for 500 excruciating pages -- to do.

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