Charismatic Meyer Maslow is one of the world's most famous good men, a Holocaust survivor whose ghastly childhood was straight out of Jerzy Kosinski's Painted Bird. Part Elie Wiesel, part Nelson Mandela, the dapper Maslow is a best-selling author and the president of World Brotherhood Watch, a Manhattan-based nonprofit devoted to preserving and championing human rights the world over.
One day, into Maslow's offices steps Vincent Nolan, a young neo-Nazi who, like a spy coming in out of the cold, begs Meyer for asylum. He's on the run from the Aryan Resistance Movement (arm), and in exchange for protection, he offers to help World Brotherhood Watch "save guys like me from becoming guys like me." Once they realize that Nolanˇdespite his Waffen-SS tattoos and shaved headˇisn't about to take hostages or bomb the place, Maslow and Bonnie Kalen, World Brotherhood Watch's hand-wringing, bespectacled head of development, try to figure out how they might use him to further their cause. "God sees into this room today, and I would have to answer to Him if I turned away a young man in need, perhaps in danger, a young man determined to changeˇand help us," says Maslow.
This is the inviting, near-preposterous conceit that fuels A Changed Man, Francine Prose's lively, unruly twelfth novel, set in spring 2001ˇnot coincidentally during the month of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's execution. The prolific Prose, often mentioned in the same breath with Joyce Carol Oates as a freakishly productive writer, has published more than four books in as many years, including the National Book Awardşnominated Blue Angel (2000).
A Changed Man is an upbeat m?lange of Prose's pet themes. Her fascination and revulsion with "Shoah business" (a pun that Village Voice critic J. Hoberman reported was used by survivors at the yivo Institute for Jewish Research in the '80s) first surfaced in Guided Tours of Hell (1997), a scorching novella satirizing Americans who casually visit Nazi concentration camps as part of their European package tours. The success of World Brotherhood Watch rests solely on the shoulders of Maslow, who's become rich and famous by trading on his horrific Holocaust childhood. If the author shined her high beam into the corrupt corners of academia in Blue Angel, here she skewers the donor-driven world of the do-good nonprofit and discovers a snarl of motives that allows flawed heroes to continue to fight the mostly good fight.
Prose understands that suffering can be commodified, as can goodness and the intent to do good. Even though Maslow is a genuinely good man, and Kalen is the better woman behind him, both know that Brotherhood Watch will hold the attention of wealthy donors only as long as it stays newsworthy and glamorous. Maslow's latest book, though, enjoyed only mediocre sales, and tickets for the organization's annual gala benefit dinner have been going slowly. The charismatic, "sort of attractive" Nolan has arrived not a moment too soon: "He's my scientific experiment," Maslow confides to a friend. "My golem. What can we extract from him to vaccinate the world with?"
But Nolan needs somewhere to hide out. "Leaving arm is not like leaving the Boy Scouts," he warns. Maslow convinces Kalen to take Nolan home to the suburbs in her aging minivan, where he'll live at least for a while with her and her two teenage sons. This setup is a contemporary twist on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Prose exploits its full potential for droll hilarity. Stuck in commuter traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge, "taking a skinhead stranger home to spend the night" with her and her children, Kalen has a minor anxiety attack:
After Bonnie and Vincent have pretty much covered the riveting subjects of the weather (hot for April!) and the traffic (hardly moving!), there's nothing to do but sit in the van, foreheads popping beads of sweat into the hideous silence. Bonnie's fighting the impulse to fling open the door and run screaming down the highway, which would make perfect sense since it's obvious she's already lost her mind.
One marvels at the risks Prose takes with her characters. Maslow is vain, and prone to petty jealousy. ("Bonnie has seen the great man's whole day ruined by a gravy spot on his tie.") And after all these years trotting out his wretched life storyˇhe escaped death at the hands of the Nazis five timesˇand delivering speeches anchored by clever catchphrases ("Human rights requires from each of us . . . a moral bungee jump"), now he's simply going through the motions. Nolan, the Changed Man, is a working-class Joe in his early thirties who suffered some setbacks (he lost his job and his girl) and wound up finding solace in arm. The author's willingness, and ability, to explore this young man reveals how a few bad breaks, coupled with what parents refer to as mixing with the wrong element, can steer a fundamentally decent guy wrong.
When Nolan first approaches Maslow to take him in, the camp survivor asks Nolan to push up his sleeves, revealing Waffen-SS lightning bolts and death's-head tattoos. Then Maslow rolls up his sleeve, "and there on Maslow's spindly arm is the row of blue numbers." It's enough that Prose has given us a somewhat co-opted Holocaust survivor and a cutie-pie skinhead comparing their tattoos; she then allows witnesses to consider whether the moment can be restaged for the media. "This recovering skinhead thing could be dynamite!" enthuses the Watch's head of PR.
Of course, Nolan is not the only one who changes. Kalen, who began working for Maslow after getting a divorce from her narcissistic cardiologist husband, is selfless in her devotion to the foundation head, as well as to her bratty but essentially good-hearted boys, Max and Danny. Taking in Nolan cracks open her world, making her reexamine her failed marriage and her relationships with her sons. Hers is perhaps the most familiar transformation, but it provides the unsentimental romantic heart of the story. Near the end of the book, she asks Nolan to pick up the minivan from the garage where it's being serviced.
Once, Bonnie might have hesitated to turn over the car keys to the Nazi houseguest. But that's not what Vincent is anymore. He's Brotherhood Watch's new hero. To say nothing of the fact that he's a guy who, not long ago, Bonnie seemed ready to have sex with. Would you want to sleep with a guy you wouldn't let drive your car? Actually, lots of women would. Women are insane.
At well over four hundred pages, A Changed Man is tome-size partly because the voices of Maslow, Nolan, Kalen, and her son Danny are each given equal weight. We hear a lot, from all of them. It's a testament to Prose's empathetic ventriloquism that she's able to convincingly inhabit the mind of a wealthy Hungarian-born human- rights legend in his seventies, an average divorced suburban mom in her forties, a lovable racist (only Prose could give us such a thing) in his thirties, and a snide, perpetually stoned teenager. The four voices are often amusing in their Rashomon-like depiction of the same eventsˇbut the extensive repetitions slow the narrative flow. Similarly, every character navel-gazes at length. Endless nattering from sixteen-year-old Danny might be expected, but what should we make of, say, Bonnie's wordy, censorious musings and near-obsessive recapitulations?
Even with a handful of richly observed set piecesˇa near-disastrous dinner party at Maslow's swanky, art-filled apartment, the subsequent gala benefit dinner at the Met, and an unnerving TV appearance by Nolan and Maslowˇin the end, there's simply too much talk, as if the ambitious, over-caffeinated word processor in Prose got the best of the incisive writer:
Bonnie should be ashamed, helping arrange this dinner partly to see how Vincent behaves, and now she's the one who's loaded. She'll worry about that later. For now, she needs to find Meyer's study. But first a trip to the bathroom, where in the glare of shocking white light, she briefly forgets why she's there and looks in the mirror. A big mistake. What did that guy on the street say? The lady looks fatigued.
This prolixity saps greatness from the novel, rendering it merely good. Still, Prose never fails to entertain. There's a breathtaking section near the end in which Raymond, Nolan's vicious white supremacist cousin, gets a few chapters of his own. Paging through People magazine, he discovers a cloying photo of Nolan and Kalen in her kitchen cooking togetherˇhis cousin and fellow skinhead has found a haven with the enemy. Raymond's an odious creep, and Prose has a great time giving voice to his bigoted, self-righteous loathing; indeed, it's awful as a reader to be there, swishing around inside his head with his venom and hatred.
Despite her vivid, accomplished evocation of such ugliness, though, Prose still manages a well-earned Hollywood ending. If at times she's been compared to Jonathan Swift, her mien is in fact less cutting, more gentle. In the end, she's a mensch, and it's a measure of both her guts and her optimism that she's able to pull off what surely must be that strangest of literary feats: a tale about a Nazi skinhead that warms the heart.
Karen Karbo's most recent book is the memoir The Stuff of Life (Bloomsbury, 2003).