Odd Fellows

A Changed Man

Francine Prose

HarperPerennial, $14.95, 432 pp.

In the early 1970s, one might have thought few reviewers would give much space to a first-time novel about wonder-working Hasidim written by an author barely over twenty-five years old. But the time was right. Elie Wiesel had recently published Souls on Fire, Isaac Bashevis Singer was all the rage, and the jacket photo of Judah the Pious showed a young woman, her black hair long and romantic, her features as severe as Wiesel’s, with a look that indicated she took the story seriously. That guileless seriousness about her fiction has distinguished Francine Prose ever since. Her second novel, The Glorious Ones, picked up where Judah left off, profiling a troupe of players in the commedia dell’arte who believed they were the characters they portrayed. Her third novel was a biography of the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Prose was staking out her terrain amid wild forms of belief.

Thirty years on, we have had seventeen books from the same young woman with the remarkable gravitas. Prose’s novels of the eighties and nineties addressed the willingness of all kinds of people to believe the impossible: goddess-worshipping feminists, tabloid writers, imported domestics, navel-gazing academics. In a literary scene obsessed with disillusionment, she remained earnest, even taking time out from chronicling the follies of overprivileged New Yorkers to translate three books by a great Holocaust author, Ida Fink. Prose’s irony is straight up, devoid of self-pity and never effete: more Preston Sturges or Paddy Chayefsky than Woody Allen. Her latest novel, A Changed Man, recently released in paperback, was greeted by reviewers as the most jaded thing since Jerry Seinfeld made out in the cinema during Schindler’s List. But these reviewers missed what Prose was up to. A Changed Man studies people who want to be good in a world that doesn’t make much sense, and deploys its ironies in the service of juxtaposing lost ideals to the pleasures of maturity, acceptance, even solemnity.

Nevertheless, the plot of the novel sounds like a one-liner. On a humid spring day in 2001, a neo-Nazi youth named Vincent Nolan saunters into the perfectly air-conditioned office of an organization called World Brotherhood Watch and seeks out its founder, one Meyer Maslow, a Transylvanian Holocaust survivor, writer, and world-famous icon of moral rectitude. Nolan announces he’s had a deep change of heart (an epiphany triggered, we later learn, by a heavy dose of the drug ecstasy) and volunteers to help the foundation “save guys like me from becoming guys like me.” The foundation’s drones, among them a haggard do-gooder named Bonnie Kalen, see in Vincent the lucky break their cause has needed for some time: a new story, something to catch the attention of the donors who congregate at World Brotherhood Watch’s annual fundraising gala at the Museum of Modern Art.

Prose has a special talent for taking plot twists that sound straight out of the Borscht Belt and making them shimmer eerily. A Changed Man is no exception. Maslow decides to take Vincent at his word concerning his transformation, and gets Bonnie Kalen to put him up at her home in the suburbs, where she lives with two teenaged sons. Vincent becomes a hot media property, pursued by People magazine writers and other celebrity journalists for his moving (and marketable) personal story-and pursued as well, in a far less friendly way, by his white supremacist cousin Raymond, from whom Vincent stole drugs and money. Amid such hilarity Prose stays focused on essential questions. Where will come the possibility of redemption and change?

Meyer Maslow bears an obvious resemblance to Elie Wiesel, and although Prose (who shares an illustrator with Wiesel) has denied any identification, too many juicy little details stick out. Maslow is supposed to have spent years hiding out from the Nazis, yet the Nazis only occupied Hungary in 1944. A talk-show host says he came from Budapest, which is not in Transylvania, and we don’t know if it’s his gaffe or Prose’s. And “Maslow” is a Polish-Jewish name, not Hungarian-Jewish. In the end, such cavils may not matter in a novel that not only demands suspension of disbelief, but takes it for a theme, showcasing characters in the habit of believing six impossible things before breakfast. Francine Prose has always been a genius at treating her characters’ beliefs with a kind of skeptical respect. Hungry Hearts and Household Saints, her two best novels, engage with Yiddish theater, wonder-working rabbis, and the cult of Thérèse of Lisieux; each finds heroes suffering painful disillusions while retaining a capacity for belief in magic.

That believing in magic has always interested Prose more than magic itself underlines her essential idealism, and her chutzpah, in writing a novel about people who believe absurd things and sometimes manage to be good because of them. Make no mistake, everyone in A Changed Man wants to be good. It’s fascinating to observe that what saves Meyer Maslow from moral perdition is the very thing that puts him in the way of bad faith. Though he knows very well he is not the iconic good man the public sees, and knows too that the world cannot in fact be changed “one heart at a time,” Maslow wants a better world badly enough to get others to believe these things, since doing so may mean saving a few lives. A lesser writer might be content to send this up as hypocrisy, but Prose grants Maslow the full benefit of her patience. The famous good man has paid for his prominence with loneliness, remaining isolated and trapped in a perpetual public impersonation of himself. Like Prose herself, he is angry at the shallowness of today’s society, uneasy with his own idealism, and nastier than his reputation.

For his part, Vincent Nolan is nice, about as nice as a tattooed ex-neo-Nazi could ever be. That’s the joke that sustains the novel until a crucial turning point-that, and his being in many ways a younger version of Meyer Maslow. Prose may be hinting that a certain type of young man-nervy and bright, hungry for attention, and a whiz at reading others-can turn into either Timothy McVeigh or Elie Wiesel, depending on the circumstances. With their rapprochement, Maslow and Nolan risk everything by daring each other to say, “Vincent Nolan, c’est moi.” And Prose takes risks too, by granting Nolan comments about the way we live now, that make perfect sense. He worries about global warming and the depletion of oxygen in the atmosphere; he sees economic inequality everywhere; he gets angry at things that are worth getting angry at. Nobody in A Changed Man is paid the insult of being made a total naif. Maslow is the “changed man” if anyone is, in the same way that Vincent wants to change: the feral child turned into a pussycat, his thoughts of vengeance turned to thoughts of peace. And just in case anyone thinks Prose is drawing exact analogies between a skinhead and a survivor, Maslow gets to refuse comparisons on cue, asking the young man to reveal the SS insignia burnt into his arm, then countering by rolling up his own sleeve with its concentration camp tattoo.

At her angriest, Prose rivals Arthur Schnitzler in the intensity of her satire. Her earlier take on “Shoah business,” Guided Tours of Hell, skewered an Auschwitz survivor who becomes a professional concentration-camp tour guide of sorts and dies of a heart attack in the midst of some heated male competition with a tourist. Throughout most of A Changed Man, though, the prevailing genius is Chekhov. Until a culminating act of violence, everything in the novel remains rather gentle and jolly. Bonnie gets very drunk at the Maslows’ apartment, Vincent nearly dies of eating nuts at the annual gala, and Maslow’s excellent wife Irene, to whom Prose is at once sympathetic and very cruel, gets to pick up the pieces. It’s hilarious and awful, but in the manner of Uncle Vanya or Fawlty Towers rather than Lenny Bruce.

As long as Prose is writing a fantasy, A Changed Man works improbably well, rather in the manner of Tom Lehrer’s “Irish Ballad,” with the same quality of demented good taste, and a ready forgiveness that extends to Bonnie, Vincent, and everyone else in Maslow’s surreal little world, including Maslow himself. Maslow’s motives are understood to be genuine, a prerequisite of a Chekhovian rather than a Schnitzlerian take on him; yet since the symmetry of the novel demands that Vincent’s take must be too, we must accept that on some level, he really believed what he said as a neo-Nazi. To bring this off, Prose takes a via negativa on the dark side of conscience-as opposed to its silly side-that resembles Elie Wiesel’s reticence concerning physical description of the horrors of the death camps. We know what Nolan has signed his name to in the past, and Prose is unlikely to excuse him. But there are aspects of her story, which, she seemingly chooses, with poetic license, not to consider, in order to maintain the tone she believes closest to its essential truth. Unlike many present-day authors, she has a sense of obscenity, of things not fit for the stage.

Even Chekhov’s gentleness, though, is finally unthinkable without his own brand of nastiness; and eventually Prose darkens her novel by introducing Raymond Gillette, Vincent’s authentically nasty cousin, a skinhead in action as well as word. Raymond turns up at Bonnie’s doorstep, meaning no good, and the question then becomes, What will Vincent do in the name of love and peace? Up to this point, A Changed Man has been proceeding much as if no one has died for these ideas. Prose’s gingerly treatment of her novel’s themes and characters creates a near-fatal strain on the novel when it suddenly turns ugly, in a final debacle occurring on an Oprah-esque talk show. Prose has, after all, written a story about redemption, and redemption is a concept that does not allow for some images, as Elie Wiesel’s Night amply testifies. Like Wiesel, Prose gets us to wondering about dark things for the most part by steering clear of them. In A Changed Man, this means sounding an alarm about American neo-Nazis by presenting one who is a decent chap. Kindness is harder to commodify than nastiness, and Prose is a humanist whose sense of fairness should be the envy of many contemporary authors incapable of writing a sympathetic character.

Whatever the logical contradictions of her approach, Francine Prose may have done a better job of rendering the Holocaust as pop culture than any other writer so far, embodying its contradictions with unapologetic earnestness in the structure of her plot. Prose is very skilled at staying within her range, and if she takes us into the world of a man who has spent his life amid the aftermath of the Holocaust without ever confronting us with the atrocity head-on anywhere in her novel, it may be because to engage such material directly would be to kill any chance of amusing us in the spirit she intended. And so readers searching A Changed Man for the dreadful discoveries of a Simon Wiesenthal, or the hatefulness of a David Duke, will not find them. That may be what we need to relish in this mostly very enjoyable novel-without pangs of misgiving.

Published in the 2006-05-05 issue: 

Tanya Avakian, a librarian, lives in Delaware.

Also by this author
The Wildness of Christianity

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