A Changed Man by Francine Prose

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

On an unseasonably warm spring afternoon, a young neo-Nazi named Vincent Nolan walks into the office of World Brotherhood Watch, a human rights foundation headed by a charismatic Holocaust survivor, Meyer Maslow. Vincent announces that he wants to make a radical change in his life. But what is Maslow to make of this rough-looking stranger who claims to have read Maslow’s books, who has Waffen-SS tattoos under his shirtsleeves, and who says that his mission is to save guys like him from becoming guys like him?

As he gradually turns into the sort of person who might actually be able to do that, Vincent also transforms those around him: Maslow, who fears that heroism has become a desk job; Bonnie Kalen, the foundation’s fund-raiser, a divorced single mother and a devoted believer in Maslow’s crusade against intolerance and injustice; and Bonnie’s teenage son, Danny, whose take on the world around him is at once openhearted, sharp-eyed, and as fundamentally decent as his mother’s.

Masterfully plotted, darkly comic, A Changed Man illuminates the everyday transactions in our lives, exposing what remains invisible in plain sight in our drug-addled and media-driven culture. Remarkable for the author’s tender sympathy for her characters, A Changed Man poses the essential questions: What constitutes a life worth living? Is it possible to change? What does it mean to be a moral human being? The fearless intelligence, wit, and humanity that inform this novel make it Francine Prose’s most accomplished yet.

Francine Prose’s characterization skills are superb, although her style took a bit of getting used to. Her style is almost too conversational and informal, which isn’t so much a criticism as much as an observation. I suspect the previous statement is more reflective of my personal preference anyway, rather than an actual detriment to the novel as a whole, because, despite what I say, the book was compulsively readable.

The fact that Vincent Nolan, the Neo-Nazi, was the most sympathetic, likeable character says a lot about Francine Prose’s ability. To be honest, though, Vincent wasn’t much of a Nazi to begin with, having (mostly) manufactured his bigotry after a bout of bad luck and bad decisions (girlfriend left him, he dunked an old Jewish lady in a swimming pool) left him homeless. Because the only person who could help him out was his cousin Raymond (a bona fide redneck with a swastika tattoo on his hand), Vincent figured that the best thing to do would be to join (or at least pretend to join) the Aryan Resistance Movement. A particularly good batch of ecstasy was instrumental in leading Vincent to renounce his bigoted ways and seek out the World Brotherhood Watch, headed by the charismatic (and sometimes opportunistic) Holocaust survivor, Meyer Maslow.

Meyer Maslow, with his pseudo-humility and moral vanity, is clearly an amalgam of the many celebrities who take part in a cause under the guise of altruism, when, in fact, they are motivated by the anticipation of the public’s adulation. (I mean, really, who can afford to take part in “charities” that require table reservations/entrance fees in the high hundreds except these “generous” celebrities?) Meyer gets all the congratulations, but the real worker bee behind his organization is Bonnie Kalen.

Bonnie Kalen is a nearly middle-aged divorcee raising two sons by herself while her ex-husband lives the cliche, i.e., middle-aged doctor seeking to carve an identity for himself, which apparently necessitates a younger, childless wife. Bonnie’s blind reverence for Meyer Maslow (her oldest son, Danny, calls him Meyer Manson) is evident when, at Meyer’s suggestion, she allows herself to be persuaded to take Vincent home with her.

The ambition of A Changed Man reminds me a bit of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, although Francine Prose does not quite reach the end she is trying to achieve and Zadie Smith is, in my opinion, a literary god among insects. Like Zadie Smith, though, Francine Prose uses humor to expose the hypocrisies and neuroses common to every man. A Changed Man was meant to be a social portrait, but she doesn’t quite succeed when focusing on a larger scope.

The story of these characters and their subsequent roles in each other’s lives are actually pretty predictable, which is somewhat disappointing. It felt like a cop-out; the reader can and will see the ending coming from a mile away. In addition, the pivotal incident in the heart of the book (where all three characters can prove how much they have or have not changed), which involves a nationally televised appearance by Meyer, Vincent, and redneck cousin Raymond, felt forced instead of inspired, a clear sign that Francine Prose cannot sustain the satirical tone that she set up in the earlier sections of the novel. But Francine Prose’s affection for the characters is always evident, and this prevents the novel from drowning in the preachiness that the writer intended to parody.

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Filed under Postmodern Literature

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