A Changed Man, by Francine Prose. HarperCollins, 421 pages, $24.95.
“What did the blind man say the first time he touched a matzoh?”
“Who wrote this shit?”
Ba-da-bing! It’s never a bad sign when a novelist feels expansive enough to toss a couple of irreverent jokes into the mix. In the case of National Book Award finalist Francine Prose, the relaxed confidence is well deserved. She’s at the top of her game, with so many books under her belt that galleys of her new novel went out to reviewers with the dedication “TK” (“to come”). After 17 titles, she’s momentarily dedicated-out.
Not that the subject matter of A Changed Man is a joking matter, exactly. The premise presented on page 1 may sound like the start of a sick shaggy-dog story-skinhead neo-Nazi walks into an anti-hate group-but Ms. Prose is loaded for bear. Her target is nothing less than sentimentality, whether it’s as grandiose as the sort exhibited by the sacrosanct “Holocaust industry” or as small as the “twaddle” syncopated by Simon and Garfunkel.
Hackles go on alert from the opening, when the thunderbolt-tattooed Vincent Nolan marches into the offices of World Brotherhood Watch, a humanitarian watchdog group based in New York. This is a guy, after all, who uses “Jew” as a verb, and this is a season-spring 2001-when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is being executed, his “freaked-out piglet face” playing on barroom TV’s across the nation. But Nolan wants to come in from the hate and help “save guys like me from becoming guys like me.” Will they accept his offer?
Of course they will: They’re do-gooders! Professional hand-wringer Bonnie (“your basic single-mother-of-two foundation fund-raiser nun”) even accepts the nervous assignment of taking him under her roof, if not her wing, driving him to her bedroom community to live with her and her two disaffected sons. Never mind that it’s implausible; the real reason she accepts her mission is that she can tell that the wolf man is really a pup at heart, and a lovable one at that.
“Though his face is chapped and abraded by years of anger, disappointment, alcohol, and boredom, he looks like a kid,” she notes. Yes, it’s true that Nolan once dunked a pesky old lady in the shallow end of a swimming pool (she was as weightless as “those balsa-wood model planes he used to make as a kid”), and yes, he does believe that the Jewish media makes sure no straight white guys ever win Survivor. But otherwise his Nazi C.V. is pretty light, with references to “Ricans” and “Jap corporate greed” little more than lip service-conversational tics like a Tourette’s of the alienated. His capitalist paranoia is so casual that he’s capable of railing against the System’s mandatory use of seat belts while buckling himself into Bonnie’s minivan. Cozily ensconced in her guest room, he feels like a housefly drowning in honey, shocked by how seductive are the comforts of the middle class. He even reads Dostoyevsky like any good child of the gentry, a white-supremacist cuddlekins.
Which is both good news and bad for our reading pleasure. Good because we can’t wait to crawl into bed with this book every night to find out whether Bonnie and her bizarro house guest are going to crawl in together, too. Good also because thereby are some delicious domestic ironies put in motion: As if in a sitcom version of The Producers set in a split-level suburb, the presence of a neo-Nazi at dinner actually improves the sons’ table manners. Even better because it gives Ms. Prose a platform from which to skewer the “Shoah Biz,” as we watch the reformed redneck perform skillfully among the Redon watercolors of charity dinners. Not since Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” has comedy been so bittersweetly wrung from the drawing rooms of the wing-tipped well-intentioned.
Bad news, however, because Nolan as a character presents no real danger. So safe is he (he restrains himself from going through all the family memorabilia under his bed, judging home photos to be within limits, but not each and every tax return) that the various relationships throughout the novel aren’t as charged as they could be; nothing much is at stake; the fictional tension is discharged before it really gets going.
Can the pitch-perfect and nuanced Ms. Prose have it both ways? Creating a housebroken Nazi-someone who relates to Bonnie’s boys more than her dolt of an overachieving ex-husband ever did-disables her from giving us a glimpse of the genuine hate that animated him when he was a storm-trooper wannabe. But maybe that’s her point: Nolan inhabits a gray zone in the same way as does his counterpart, the saintly figure who steers Brotherhood Watch, a “gleaming knife blade of purity and moral courage,” despite being beleaguered by egotism and petty jealousies. Both are equally flawed and noble. It’s not that Ms. Prose can’t do fangs; she cleverly defangs the Nazi to show us his humanity.
By the time she gets around to offering us a real villain in the form of Nolan’s cousin, someone who means it when he spews invective about the “Jewdicial system” and the “Holo-hoax,” two-thirds of the book is gone and laughter has drained the threat. Sure he stalks the house, but Glenn Close did it better: No way is this loser going to stew the pet rabbit.
Quick, before the orchestra warbles me from the stage, three last points: For a book that targets sentimentality in all its forms, things come a little too easy-too easy how Nolan falls in love with the head of Brotherhood Watch, too easy how everyone falls in love with Nolan, like the girls falling all over Captain America in Easy Rider. (Is it also offensive that in this Jewish milieu he’s the point of attraction, as though the dowagers have never before felt a bulging bicep beneath the sleeve of a tux? A real man at last?)
Also, it’s worth noting that for all her lighthearted lampooning, Ms. Prose-she of the regally sad face-always manages to convince me that she has known her share of suffering. When she talks of the “spongy exhaustion that follows hours of weeping,” I trust that she’s been there. Jokiness aside, she knows a poignant moment when she sees it, as when the “heartbreakingly wobbly” high-school band strikes up “Pomp and Circumstance” badly-”sour notes make it soar,” “rhythm mistakes make it all the more wrenching.”
Finally, if in A Changed Man you occasionally find yourself hungering for less-less discourse, less internal monologuing, fewer stretches where the actors get mired down by conscience the way a video figure periodically slogs through muddy patches-console yourself with the thought that this is kind of a Jewish book, after all, not kind of a Nazi book: more talk than action. You’d want it the other way around, maybe?
Daniel Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer.