Francine Prose is often referred to as a satirist, but that label is more an artifact of our age than an accurate description of her work. Prose's new novel, "A Changed Man," features a quasi-reformed neo-Nazi as its protagonist, more or less, along with a rich and self-absorbed Holocaust survivor who runs a global do-gooder organization called World Brotherhood Watch, a multitasking 40-ish soccer mom who's barely holding her life together, and a handsomely tailored African-American talk-show host who's part Oprah and part Phil Donahue. Throw in the sexy Latina New York Times reporter, the Holocaust survivor's Viennese-aristocrat wife and the mouthy teenager who shocks his school by writing a paper suggesting that Hitler might have been gay, and yeah, it does sound like we're in the realm of larger-than-life Tom Wolfe pastiche.
The thing is, we're not. Does any of that sound even slightly implausible? If "A Changed Man" is satire, then so are lots of other things, including "Anna Karenina," "Middlemarch" and "Our Mutual Friend." I'm not suggesting that this novel is playing quite in that league, but I am suggesting that Prose is striving for the same kind of large-scale social portraiture, and that her desire to capture contemporary Americans, with all their internal contradictions, solipsism and general screwed-upness, is guided more by the spirit of compassion than by that of mockery.
You might say with more justice, in fact, that "A Changed Man" is a romantic comedy in an almost classical form, and if the identities of the two mismatched maybe-lovers are obvious from the start, that only heightens the will-they-or-won't-they intrigue. From the moment that Vincent Nolan, a skinhead from the economically depressed boonies of upstate New York, walks into the Manhattan offices of World Brotherhood Watch, something clicks between him and Bonnie Kalen, the foundation's chief fundraiser. It's just that at first it isn't something good.
Vincent's first hit on Bonnie is ruthless, in typical Prose-ian fashion. (There are lots of female writers who labor mightily to produce borderline-convincing male characters, but Prose has unique access to some channel of pure testosterone -- and clearly relishes it.) "Putty-colored business suit, thin blondish hair tied back into the same limp pigtail she probably wore in college, fortyish, a couple of kids, bossy psychiatrist husband," Vincent reflects. Her eyes, "two magnified blue jellyfish" behind her glasses, make her look "slightly psycho," and Vincent's internal conclusion is: "Another female nutcase."
This from a guy with Waffen SS tattoos on his arms and a big duffel bag that contains, for all Bonnie knows, an arsenal of semiautomatic weapons or a McVeigh-style fertilizer bomb. For her part, Bonnie tries and doesn't quite succeed in hiding the revulsion and fear she feels when confronted by this bumblefuck loser. Mutually horrified, the two retreat into the WBF offices, and here comes the scene's coup de grace. Vincent checks out Bonnie's ass as she walks in front of him, out of nothing more than boredom and male conditioning, and something happens: "Something about it breaks his heart. She's got a nice ass, and she doesn't know it, and now it's almost too late. The ass has got another couple years. The husband's already stopped caring."
Something about that moment, its dead-on combination of vulgarity and tenderness, abruptly makes us feel differently about both characters, and to see that both Bonnie and Vincent have the possibility within them of not quite being the people they are right now. If Prose's title seems to refer to Vincent, who shows up at WBF in hopes of becoming a celebrity convert after reading the inspirational volumes by its founder, Holocaust survivor Meyer Maslow, it really refers to everyone in the book. (Prose clearly isn't afraid of the traditional, Germanic and of course irredeemably sexist usage of "Man" to refer to members of the species in general.)
If no one in "A Changed Man" is quite who they seem to be, Prose does not use these ironies to poke easy fun at them, but rather to observe that the same can be said of any of us. Vincent has the tattoos and the haircut, but as neo-Nazis go he's pretty fourth-rate. He's not telling Bonnie and Maslow that his activities in the American Rights Movement (aka the Aryan Resistance Movement) largely consisted of crashing on his cousin's couch and shouting slurs at blacks and Jews seen on TV, nor is he advertising recent events involving a stolen pickup truck, $1,500 in cash and a lot of prescription medication.
As for Bonnie, she's a whiz at raising money, but she's neurotic and overstressed (most of Vincent's guesses about her are correct) and sublimates her entire emotional life into her worshipful working relationship with Maslow. Only when Vincent is ensconced in her spare room and begins to pay attention to her two sons does she realize how haphazard and panic-driven her mothering style has become. (Vincent's relationship with the teenage Danny is perhaps the most delightful of this novel's several subplots.)
And Meyer Maslow, who has leveraged his extraordinary personal history into an impressive and effective global organization, has also gradually lost his sense of purpose, sinking into a Manhattan celebrity fog of black-tie benefit dinners and increasingly hackneyed bestsellers. At first, Maslow and Bonnie look at Vincent as an unstable loser who just might become a fundraising bombshell (if he can learn to stop saying words like "Japs" and "Ricans"), and he looks at them as a temporary respite, a place to hide out until his cousin Raymond -- a real, honest-to-God white supremacist -- catches up to him.
You'll realize as you charge through this crackling read, loaded with humor and drama -- and I read almost all of it in one sitting -- that something much bigger is at stake, something that in another era might have been described as the question of these people's immortal souls. Vincent really does change, in the quintessentially American sense that he invents himself anew, and his improbable example becomes a genuine inspiration to others. That's not satire; that, God help us, is the 19th century moral novel made contemporary. Although Dickens and George Eliot, admittedly, never tackled the high drama of a woman whose ass is nearing its expiration date.