Unlike some novelists, who take us into unfamiliar terrain, Francine Prose keeps readers firmly rooted in a contemporary America as recognizable as the evening news. But beneath the familiarity, Prose gets to the essence of what we ourselves might have been thinking but didn't quite have the facility or the courage to put into words. Her National Book Award finalist, Blue Angel, for instance, skewered the trend toward political correctness on college campuses with a lot more spirit and humor, but no less bite, than Philip Roth's The Human Stain.

Prose's latest, A Changed Man, is launched with a terrific premise. A reformed neo-Nazi arrives at the plush Manhattan offices of a human rights organization and announces that he has had an ideological awakening. He wants to help reach out to other misguided White Supremacists. The uptown liberals are a bit put off by Vincent Nolan, who sports tattoos of Waffen-SS bolts and a death's head, but the founder of the Worldwide Brotherhood Watch, Holocaust survivor Meyer Maslow, senses that he has just been handed a gift from the public relations gods. Putting this working-class antihero on display as a "changed man" could help the flagging fortunes of the group, and maybe sell a few copies of Meyer's latest, and least successful, book in the bargain.

Meyer foists Vincent off on his development director, Bonnie Kalen, a 40-something single mother who would do anything her boss asks, even take a total stranger and avowed skinhead home to the suburban house she shares with her two teenage sons. The boys 16-year-old Danny and 12-year-old Max are used to their mother's do-gooder impulses, but this time they think she may have gone off the deep end. Vincent quickly proves a pretty cool guy to have around, though, and certainly more attentive than their physician dad, who is about to adopt a Bulgarian baby with his vacuous second wife. Danny, in particular, engages in an ongoing dialogue with their unconventional lodger that will open his young eyes to the possibilities beyond their prim upper-middle-class Hudson Valley town.

Vincent's 15 minutes of fame are parlayed into an appearance with Meyer on "Chandler," America's favorite talk show. The only real problem with Vincent's rapid ascendancy as a media darling is that no one knows the entire story. It's assumed that he is on the run from the Aryan Resistance Movement (or, officially, the American Rights Movement), but Vincent fails to mention that he stole a chunk of money, a truck and the Vicodin with which he secretly self-medicates from his cousin Raymond. When Raymond spots Vincent in a People magazine article, he decides to make an unannounced appearance at the "Chandler" taping. The chaos that ensues will test everyone's true mettle and get to the heart of Prose's essential theme of change. For all its carefully worked-out plot, A Changed Man ultimately flies on the strength of its characters, and Prose adeptly gets beneath the skin of most of them. Meyer is a conflicted man who has embraced the adulation that surrounds him, yet has the self-awareness to recognize that in some ways he is a fraud. Bonnie, who battles her attraction to Vincent, is that particular brand of default-position liberal who has the right intentions, but overanalyzes every move she makes (some judicious editing to remove a dozen or so pages of Bonnie's repetitive angst might have been wise). With Danny, arguably the best-drawn character, Prose captures all the confusion, anger and studied indifference of adolescence.

Ironically, only Vincent never quite convinces, for although Prose has imbued him with a rich inner life, we never fully understand his overreaching motivation for change (it's not a class thing, because we really understand Raymond, despite his secondary place in the narrative). Maybe that's Prose's point: despite the Age of Self-Help we inhabit, we can never fully understand our own capacity for change. We're all works-in-progress. No matter, A Changed Man is an engaging novel, a sharp and timely social comedy that's not afraid to poke indiscriminate fun at a veritable herd of sacred cows.

Robert Weibezahl's novel, The Wicked and the Dead, will be published later this year.

 

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