April 2005

Michael Schaub

fiction

A Changed Man by Francine Prose

The angry white male is not going away. He’s been blamed -- or credited, depending on your politics -- for the Republican Revolutions, the string of conservative victories that started in 1994 and now repeats itself every two years. When Howard Dean said in 2004 that he wanted to be “the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” he was trying to reclaim poor white Southerners for the Democratic party. It didn’t work. The poor white Southerners had no intention of deserting Bush, and the reference to the rebel flag alienated the rich white liberals who hold incredible influence over the Democratic primaries. The angry white male has been abandoned by angry white progressives, who would rather have the gun enthusiasts and militia nuts safely cloistered in the other party. Why did Kerry lose the South, the Mountain West and Ohio? That’s why.

Not all angry white males have the Confederate flag in their pickup trucks, though, nor are all of them are Southerners. Vincent Nolan, the angry white skinhead who’s also the title character of Francine Prose’s novel A Changed Man, is from upstate New York, the same economically depressed part of the country that spawned Timothy McVeigh (who Nolan bears a strong resemblance to, we’re told). There’s no rebel flag in the truck he stole from his cousin, just a few changes of clothes, a couple of books and an issue of Soldier of Fortune, and some handfuls of pills. Like it or not, you’ve got to understand Vincent Nolan and people like him to understand America. Francine Prose understands Vincent Nolan. She understands people like Meyer Maslow, too, the Holocaust survivor and human-rights activist to whom Nolan turns when he forsakes his white-supremacist brothers. And she understands Bonnie Kalen, the development director for Maslow’s organization, who’s dedicated her life -- and, unwittingly, the lives of her two sons -- to Maslow’s mission of tolerance and brotherhood. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time.” You could say, then, that the true test of a first-rate novelist is the ability to get her readers to care about characters with contradictory ideas. Francine Prose is something better than a first-rate novelist -- she’s essential, and so is A Changed Man.

The novel starts as Nolan drives with his stolen goods into Manhattan, searching for the headquarters of World Brotherhood Watch, Maslow’s charitable foundation. He’s read, or skimmed, a few of Maslow’s books, and decided to seek a job with the foundation, or at least a safe haven from his cousin Raymond, whose ideas about white supremacy and the “Jewish media” are still intact. Maslow is intrigued, perhaps against his better judgment, and offers Nolan a place in Bonnie Kalen’s home -- Kalen, a Jewish single mother who’s never really encountered anyone like Nolan before. But Kalen gamely accepts Nolan as her houseguest, despite her obvious misgivings, and a near-disastrous car ride with the ex-skinhead from her office to her house. (In one telling passage, Kalen questions Nolan’s assertion that he fell in with the white supremacists because of his father’s trouble with the IRS. Nolan hisses in reply: “It might be better if you didn’t talk about stuff you don’t know about.”)

Kalen is afraid, obviously, mostly for the welfare of her two children, Max and Danny. Max is 12 and unbelievably intelligent; Danny is 16, good-hearted and smart as well, though flirting with apathy and smoking, perhaps, a little too much pot. The boys warm slowly to Nolan, stopping short of transforming him into a father figure, though the echo of a paternal relationship reverberates throughout the book, if quietly. (The boys’ biological father, a surgeon, lives with his second wife, and shows only a cursory interest in his sons’ lives.) Nolan warms to them, too, suggesting Danny write a term paper on Hitler, who Nolan thinks was secretly gay. Danny ends up writing the paper, thus offending his liberal teacher and gay school counselor, which lets Prose subtly skewer the politically correct mores she took apart so convincingly in her previous novel, the fine Blue Angel.

In the meantime, Nolan becomes a celebrity after a moving speech to the World Brotherhood Watch, truncated by a nearly-fatal allergic reaction to tree nuts. He’s invited, with Maslow, to be a guest on Chandler, a popular daytime talk show with a sincere, if vapid, host. He and the Kalens are profiled in People magazine story that features, as Vincent’s cousin Raymond puts it, “the standard People shot of the losers in the kitchen. Laughing and whooping it up. That’s how ‘In Trouble’ always ends, with that kitchen scene, everybody feeling better now, or at least in remission. Usually it’s some bald chick cooking for her friends.” The reference to “remission” is important; Vincent still has his cousin to deal with, and Raymond hasn’t forgotten about the drugs and money and Soldier of Fortune (“...which Vincent never liked anyway. So that was just pure meanness, which hurt.”) his cousin stole from him. If that sounds like a suspense novel -- skinhead searches for the man who betrayed him -- it’s not. It's prose that builds suspense, but not at the expense of the characters. This novel is about the characters; it’s not another tawdry cat-versus-mouse chase novel.

And the characters are impeccably drawn. There’s an unspoken rule that characters like Maslow, who has forgiven the Nazis who tried to murder him and now preaches forgiveness to a global audience, are unimpeachable. But he’s refreshingly human, concerned with the sales of his latest book (though ashamed of that), and a little quick-tempered and, at times, arrogant. When Vincent makes a reference to “Saint Paul getting knocked off his donkey on the road to Damascus,” Maslow immediately corrects him: “Saul of Tarsus got thrown off his horse on the way to Damascus.” Maslow’s humanity might be hard to take for those who haven’t accepted that even the most virtuous humans have faults; a few commentators have accused Prose of writing Maslow as a transparent stand-in for Elie Wiesel. (He’s not.)

It’s amazing, too, how Prose manages to get in Vincent Nolan’s head. Some of Nolan’s early internal monologues are pretty shocking in their intolerance. Reflecting on the change he’s considering making, he thinks, “Let go of the long-nosed Jew and the Negro with the big dick. Bye-bye defending the endangered white race, hello peace through change.” There’s a difference between understanding why an otherwise intelligent man would hook up with a group like ARM (which stands for the Aryan Resistance Movement, or the American Rights Movement, depending on whether you ask Meyer Maslow or Raymond Nolan), and excusing it. Prose doesn’t excuse it, but it’s obvious she understands.

It’s also obvious how deeply and truly she loves these characters. Max and Danny, Bonnie’s children, are supporting players in the book, but Prose does a perfect job depicting them. (Adolescent boys are, at times, even more difficult to understand than white supremacists, which makes Prose’s feat all the more impressive.) The most convincing character is Bonnie Kalen, who’s unbelievably good-hearted, but intensely real. She finds herself attracted to Nolan, who’s somewhat younger than her, while still wondering whether he’s really changed at all. It’s the kind of doubt and faith that everyone has, but it’s almost impossible to translate convincingly into fiction. But A Changed Man is much more than convincing, it is, in a way, realer than real.

Prose has been in the top tier of American fiction writers for a long time, though her recent run of books, starting with Hunters and Gatherers in 1996, has suggested she might be something even greater than that. Her 2000 novel Blue Angel garnered extremely positive reviews and was a finalist for the National Book Award, shocking those who thought Prose’s razor-sharp take on political and sexual correctness was too harsh (and, it’s worth saying, too accurate) for sensitive American liberals. Blue Angel was indeed brilliant, standing beside Philip Roth’s The Human Stain as one of the best novels ever written about American academia. But you only have to read the first chapter of A Changed Man to realize that it’s something even greater, even more profound. Few authors are brave enough to take on the angry white male without being facile, self-righteous, preachy. There’s nothing new under the sun and all that, but no one’s even come close to writing a book quite like this one. By taking on intolerance -- even the intolerance of those who preach tolerance for a living -- Prose has created a stunning, beautiful, and vital American novel. A Changed Man is Francine Prose’s masterpiece, but it’s also ours.

A Changed Man by Francine Prose
HarperCollins
ISBN: 0060196742
421 Pages