Inspired by a hit of ecstasy, a 32-year-old white supremacist shows up on the doorstep of the World Brotherhood Watch foundation and declares himself an ex-member of the Aryan resistance. Vincent Nolan, the eponymous "changed man" of Francine Prose's new novel, could go about his transformation in any number of ways, but decides instead to do the American thing and turn his apostasy into a career move. (For more on this, see the twin Davids of American politics: Brock and Horowitz.)
With his own humble synergy, Vincent informs a frightened audience that he wants to "help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me." Brotherhood Watch is only too happy to help, and their relationship quickly becomes one of mutual exploitation. A feel-good human rights group, the foundation is the pet project of Mayer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor and activist as dedicated to helping the oppressed as he is to advancing his book sales. He eagerly pimps his turncoat Nazi as a fund-raising tool, while Vincent receives room and board at a temporary safehouse away from his former comrades.
Maslow's lieutenant, Bonnie Kalen, is the proverbial woman behind the great man. Part fund-raiser, part girl Friday, she's a divorcee with two sons in the 'burbs and an ego the size of a Smurf's thimble. When the job of billeting Vincent is thrown on her plate, the stage is set for more than a little sexual familial tension. Vincent transforms into a milder version of Charles in Charge. Even though he steals pot from Bonnie's older son, he still ends up being as much a father as the kids' original model. Romantic tension simmers between Bonnie and Vincent; the situation is stilted and weird, and charged with any number of taboos to keep it complex and interesting.
Francine Prose (Blue Angel) has written a novel with an identity crisis: It stops short of flat-out satire, but it isn't quite another midlife crisis romance. It takes potshots at the naivet of feel-good multiculturalism as well as the contradiction inherent in social change as a career. Meyer Maslow is forever fretting about his mawkish books' (One Heart at a Time) Amazon ranking and whether or not other champions of the oppressed are stealing his limelight. Even Vincent is painfully aware of his own expiration date and convinces himself he's competing for Maslow's favor with an imprisoned Iranian cartoonist.
A Changed Man brings us inside the heads of its characters, who belabor every decision, every waking moment of their lives, with the kind of self-doubt and recrimination fit for a Woody Allen film. While there's humor in these monologues, the reader can't help but feel equally beleaguered, if not strangled, by the way the story grinds to a halt for yet another angst installment. What adds a dose of complexity, however, is the way every one of Prose's characters is on the make. Vincent is as keenly aware of his hairpin ideological turn as he is the fact that his new life is a lot better than sleeping on his cousin's couch, and that it's something worth hustling for.
A Changed Man has its finger on the pulse of a cultural current, namely how so many people seem painfully aware of how their lives can be molded into a media narrative. But they're also supported by loftier desires to change themselves for the better, if not politically then personally. Such dissonance between the personal and the political, and between the farcical and the authentically human, makes for an interesting, if often exhausting, read.
-- John Dicker
A Changed Man by Francine Prose
(Harper Collins: New York)