A Changed Man - Francine Prose

Everyone believes in something, be it God, alchemy, market forces, or mutability. Meyer Maslow, high-profile Holocaust survivor and founder of Brotherhood Watch (BW), believes in all of the above, and then some. As head of an organization that uses publicity and moral pressure to free political prisoners and dissidents, he is surrounded by acolytes who staff his offices and follow his central belief: "peace through change."

The eponymous changed man, Vincent Nolan, leaves his van in the top tier of a parking garage, descends to the gritty heat of Manhattan, and rides the elevator (along with a dwarf - his description, not mine!) to the cool BW headquarters. The women who serve as gatekeepers for Meyer are wary, but they do allow him access.

Vincent tells Meyer his story, mixing truth with wary selectivity. He has, indeed, escaped from the ranks of the American Rights Movement (ARM), a neo-Nazi organization, after an ecstasy-fueled flash of insight in the middle of a rave. He also has stolen his neo-Nazi cousin's van, money, and stash of drugs, details he omits, knowing that they would block his plan to offer himself as a symbol of the type of change dear to Meyer's heart and soul.

Also omitted is the shaky basis of his altered philosophy and the struggle to change his inner vocabulary of borrowed neo-Nazi lingo. He is determined. (" "Attitude is everything,' he reminded himself as he navigated the hot and multicultural streets of Manhattan - the very essence of the evil against which the Aryans fight.") His decisions are fortified by his totem books: Crime and Punishment, and The Way of the Warrior.

At this stage, Vincent is a chameleon in the guise of a changed man, trying on the identity of redemption as he once did with ARM (although without a drug hit). He has drifted from one identity to another, from his mother's New Age airiness to the ARM, on currents of disappointment and neediness, taking on coloration as needed.

Bonnie Kalen, Meyer's fundraising assistant, is a witness to the moment that bonds the two men. Both have tattoos, coloration, as it were - Vincent's death's head and SS thunderbolts vs. Meyer's tattooed numbers. Meyer believes in the alchemy that can transform evil into good, and sees potential where others might suspect a scam.

Bonnie agrees to give Vincent temporary refuge in her home. Her disaffected sons accept the stranger as another peculiarily in their lives, already changed by their parents' divorce. The elder, writing a school paper about Hitler, takes Vincent's hint about Hitler's sexuality and takes it too far, resulting in a minature version of the plight of the dissident journalists that BW deplores. Bonnie, numbed from her divorce from a self-absorbed cardiologist, takes on the challenge of making Vincent ready for his closeup as the new face of BW.

The transformation is not easy. What transformation is? A dress rehearsal for the upcoming glittering fundraiser begins when Vincent spills red wine on his shirt. It ends with Bonnie, drunk and asleep on Meyer's bed. Meyer, who knows that he has burdened Bonnie with the task of taming the rough-edged stranger, looks at his sleeping aide and "feels like a different person. Purified. Washed clean. It's as if he's come through to the other side... he can experience pure love for a fellow human being... This is what God gives you in return for trying to be conscious and do the right thing."

(Yes, even secular saints can lose their way and begin to fret about drug busts at Pride and Prejudice camp, or insert phrases like "moral bungee jump" into their speeches.)

The newly-tamed Vincent has a weakness that almost ends his new career - an allergy to nuts - and he has to fight the effects of a single nut in a salad to deliver his speech about - well - about his escape from a nest of nuts. His escape from ARM has not escaped his cousin's notice, and his desire for cover is destroyed as his heroics are publicized. Raymond, the neo-Nazi cousin, hunts him down and confronts him on a live, Oprah-like talk show...

Francine Prose has conjured a story that uses fairy tale and archetypal situations and characters in a very modern cautionary tale. The reader will encounter Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Pea, dwarves (both physical and moral), Ice Princesses, and the solitary rites of passage that prepare a person to emerge and survive in a new life. The twin devils of political correctness and bigotry are personified in high school classes as well as Raymond's Homeland Encampment. Can it be as dangerous to follow a charismatic leader whose goals are saintly as to follow a demonic historic figure? If Meyer is eager for publicity, is he selling his soul by agreeing to a live appearance with a charismatic talk show host?

I loved this book.

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