Seeing Gray in a Black-and-white World Francine Prose Turns the Screws on the Self-righteous

A Changed Man

By Francine Prose

HarperCollins, 432 pages, $24.95.


You’d think that Francine Prose might be losing some steam. After more than a dozen novels and a handful of short fiction and nonfiction works, it would stand to reason that this National Book Award-nominated author might be a prime candidate for writerly malaise, that she might be falling into that overdrive zone of such book-a-year prolifics as Joyce Carol Oates and John Grisham.

Quite to the contrary, Prose is in top form — and her wit as sharp as ever. Never one to shy away from the controversial, Prose always has been happy to attack her subjects head on, eviscerating the sanctimony of academia (“Blue Angel”), New Ageism (“Hunters and Gatherers”) and the upper-middle class (“Primitive People”) with an equal amount of glee. Her oft-published essays are similarly charged and, much to the delight of the cocktail-party circuit, Prose doesn’t seem to care a whit whom she offends. In fact she seems to relish taking the politically incorrect side of an argument, with no subject too touchy or too loaded for her assault. In the case of “A Changed Man,” Prose again turns the screws on the self-righteous, setting her sights simultaneously on the far right and on the far left in a triumphant satire that hits all its comic marks while never straying too far from its humanity.

The book’s premise is rich. A neo-Nazi skinhead seeks reform, applying for asylum among the liberals. “I want to help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me,” says Vincent Nolan, our Waffen-S.S.-tattooed hero, as he marches into World Brotherhood Watch, a New York-based humanitarian watchdog group. It’s the spring of 2000, and with Timothy McVeigh’s soon-to-be-executed face a constant on television, even Meyer Maslow, the Holocaust survivor who runs the organization, knows a good pitch when he sees it. So it goes… the white supremacist with a heart of gold makes his entrance, joining the fold and learning to keep under wraps his drug problem, his tattoos and his paranoid inclinations to dis the “Rican” and the “JAP.”

But is Vincent all he says he is? Does it really matter? Meyer readily admits that Vincent is “my scientific experiment. My golem.” And the foundation’s fund raiser, Bonnie, who puts up Vincent in her suburban home, is equally in need of a pet project. Single, middle aged and the mother of two disaffected boys, the tightly wound Bonnie is “an orgasm waiting to happen. Or a nervous breakdown. Whichever gets there first.” And she’s only too happy to have the new poster boy as a house companion as he charms her with the ever-present possibility of change and connects with her kids in a way that their egocentric cardiologist father never could. Naturally, Vincent eats it up — one pizza delivery and Chinese takeout at a time — quickly ingratiating himself as the foundation’s meal ticket, charming reporters and potential donors alike with his telegenic good looks and his tabloid-ready story.

Change, however, requires more than a “two-hundred-dollar haircut” and a Hugo Boss suit. Even with all the do-gooders’ ministrations, the jury’s still out on whether Vincent’s transformation is bona fide. What about that nasty Vicodin habit, the copies of “Soldier of Fortune” and the getaway car parked in a garage in the city? Prose works hard to augur that at any moment Vincent might turn, or return, and that his ecstasy-induced conversion was little more than a drug-addled loser with some media smarts realizing that the other side of the tracks provided more opportunity for self-advancement. The promise of, or at least allusion to, this double-cross keeps the novel moving, and if any criticism can be leveled at Prose, it’s that this dramatic tension never gets taut enough. Vincent’s nemesis, his swastika-branded cousin, Raymond, doesn’t show up until the novel is nearly finished, and by that time the more compelling question is not whether Vincent is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but whether he and the eager-to-please Bonnie will end up in bed.

In the end, Prose gives us the Hollywood version, the neo-Nazi “Pretty Woman” in which the beleaguered single mom straps on her shining armor. It sounds a bit treacly, yes, but Prose’s intelligence and pitch-perfect tone save the book from that dreaded fate. She has created a handful of nuanced characters, whom she genuinely likes and isn’t afraid to skewer. Whether it’s Bonnie’s 16-year-old stoner son, the villainous Raymond, or the vain and sometimes petty Meyer, Prose happily uses each character’s foibles to have them — and what they stand for — lay bare. When Meyer admits to using the Holocaust as his “trump card, to win every argument, to establish your credentials in the field of suffering,” it is not only Meyer whom Prose is targeting but also the entire industry, the whole Holocaust “song and dance” all together.

Ultimately, whether change is possible or not seems almost beside the point. Vincent and Meyer may be from vastly different backgrounds, but they are cut from the same cloth: “One reason Nolan picked up on Meyer’s ideas so fast was that they were weirdly similar to the stuff you heard at the Homeland Encampment.” Groupthink, then, is groupthink; the aimless can just as easily be brainwashed by racists as they can by the “Meyer Manson” party line. The only difference, of course, is that the chauffeured town car sure beats the rusty pickup. In “A Changed Man,” Prose offers a compelling argument for the “grey areas,” for getting “beyond the point where everything has to be black or white, one way or another.” In a country with a serious red-and-blue hangover, it should only be that easy.

Jenifer Berman is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn. She works for GQ and contributes to The New York Times Book Review and to Bookforum.

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