Daphne Merkin may not much like it—or maybe she likes it just fine—but whatever else she writes, she's guaranteed to be identified as the author of what's come to be known as "the spanking piece" in the special February 1996 women's issue of The New Yorker. "The fact is that I cannot remember a time when I didn't think about being spanked as a sexually gratifying act, didn't fantasize about being reduced to a craven object of desire by a firm male hand," the divorced mother of one writes in her disarmingly frank essay "Spanking: A Romance," one of 35 included in the collection Dreaming of Hitler.
Though one can only marvel at the author's Olympic-caliber self-absorption, Merkin does have an extraordinary ability to write about such embarrassing subjects as the aforementioned spanking with calm and clarity. Her intellect is broad-ranging: In the title essay, which explores profound questions of identity, she imagines trying to reason the Nazi dictator out of his genocidal policies. Regrettably, though, the collection has an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink quality. Pieces seem to have been included primarily for their ability to put distance between the front and back covers. Many of the essays are lightweight—for example, Merkin's musings on a lost scarf or on skipping her college reunion—and still others show their age, such as her reflections on Richard Burton or on the movie Pretty Woman. But ultimately, Dreaming of Hitler seems like the idea of an editor who wanted to capitalize on the attention already paid to "Spanking: A Romance." (Crown, $25)