We gave it an A
Francine Prose operates with such tact and verve in her astute new novel, A Changed Man, that the sacred cows she targets walk away stunned but healthier for having been so expertly needled. And little could be more sacred, surely, than the good works of tolerance, human-rights activism, and humanitarian rescue that are the mission of World Brotherhood Watch. This quintessential nonprofit operation, with its New York staff of idealists and bumblers, its board of donors and poseurs, is Prose’s cheeky fictional amalgam of every actual charitable outfit to which anyone has ever written a check. And Brotherhood Watch, in turn, is the creation of the revered Holocaust survivor whom Prose calls Meyer Maslow. Think Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel for gravitas, throw in a bit of Abraham Foxman from the Anti-Defamation League for relentlessness, and add a garnish of U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan for rock stardom to get a sense of Maslow’s magnetism.
Anyhow, the fellow is about to get a run for his money. Maslow himself changes in the course of Prose’s artfully structured novel — every main character does, in the way of any worthwhile comedy of manners and morals. But the main man targeted for transformation is Vincent Nolan, a young neo-Nazi who walks into the Brotherhood offices one day to announce that he has seen the error of his ways and wants to do what he can to keep guys like himself from becoming guys like himself. Nolan’s got the tattoos of his hate-mongering crew on his arm and a giant chip on his shoulder. (In these attributes, he’s related to the furious but redeemable young men in The Believer and American History X.) He’s also got a true glimmer of good in him, visible to Bonnie Kalen, the foundation’s frazzled fund-raiser, who takes Vincent under her wing and, indeed, into her home.
No, not like that. Bonnie is a divorced mom raising two noisy sons, a classic Woman Who Does Too Much. And although Prose makes a nod in the direction of suggesting a sexual attraction, the author has her sharp eyes trained on much more significant (and less obvious) issues and their attendant hypocrisies, the brightest of which are presented in a selection of showstopping literary set pieces. A dinner party at Maslow’s home introduces us to the care and feeding of rich donors, to class-system niceties, to precisely nailed cocktail blather, and especially to Meyer’s fearsomely elegant wife, Irene, who ”like many European women. . .has a certain disputatious geisha quality. . .” A fund-raising gala, described with the kind of delight that Jane Austen took in analyzing formal balls, reports on (among other details) the working life of a pretty, young New York Times reporter, the choreography of predinner schmoozing, and what it takes to transform an ordinary person into a ”hero” (in this case, surviving the ravages of a peanut-allergy attack).
Prose creates a warm and busy microcosm of erring and atoning. While she’s at it, she also conjures a particular, sharply drawn universe of liberal-leaning New Yorkers who don’t always behave well in the process of doing good — all of them redeemed by her amused, caring touch.