A Changed Man

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1526

Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald could not have been more wrong when he said that there are no second acts in American lives. To begin anew is the oldest and most persistent of American dreams, having shaped the narrative of much of American literature and defined the character of American religion....

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Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald could not have been more wrong when he said that there are no second acts in American lives. To begin anew is the oldest and most persistent of American dreams, having shaped the narrative of much of American literature and defined the character of American religion. In their current incarnations, stories of reform and rebirth, second chances and second actsideally accompanied by revealing autobiography and heartfelt confessionare also staples of the celebrity-obsessed popular media.

In A Changed Man, one of American fiction’s most consistently provocative comic novelists offers another variation on this perennial theme. In recent novels such as Primitive People (1992), Hunters and Gatherers (1995), Guided Tours of Hell (1997), and Blue Angel (2000), Francine Prose has created a series of fearless, funny, acerbic, and humane portraits of men, women, and children and the culture that surrounds and shapes them. She has never been afraid of being politically incorrectin Hunters and Gatherers she mocked New Age feminism; in Guided Tours of Hell she examined the envious vanity of a minor writer and the character of a flawed Holocaust survivor in a visit to Auschwitz; in Blue Angel she showed how charges of sexual harassment could be used as a weapon in the culture wars and a means of personal advancement. Prose has also been inclined to treat all of her characters with understanding and affection: Though her tone is often satiric, there are no villains and few fools in her fiction.

The changed man of this novel is Vincent Nolan. A directionless, thirty-two-year-old man, he has been fired from minimum-wage jobs with a pool-cleaning company and a doughnut shop before finding himself homeless, working the night shift at a Quik-Mart and sleeping during the day in a nursing home bed. When his cousin Raymond offers him a couch to sleep on and a job at a tire shop, he moves in andout of gratitude as much as anger at his lifejoins Raymond and his friends in the Aryan Resistance Movement. The group mainly drinks, complains about minorities and the government, curses at news and talk shows on television, and attends rallies. During the time Vincent is with them, they never act on their beliefs. One night when Vincent is drunk, he gets two tattoosa swastika and an SS lightning bolt.

Then, at a rave where he helps Raymond sell ecstasy, Vincent imbibes one of the little pills and experiences a revelation and a sense of love for all humankind: “Everyone. Black and white, Jewish, Christian, Communist, freaks, retarded, mutant, whatever.”

During his lunch hours, Vincent has been sitting in his car, reading by himself. His reading has included The Way of the Warrior and The Complete Pogo, as well as two books by a Holocaust survivor named Meyer Maslow, The Kindness of Strangers and Forgive, Not Forget. The first line of The Kindness of Strangers (“This is a book about being taken in and saved by ordinary people of courage and conscience”) and the description Vincent reads of Meyer’s newest book, One Heart at a Time (about “changing one person, one heart, at a time”), inspires him to escape his dead-end life and start over by volunteering to work with Meyer’s foundation, World Brotherhood Watch. One morning, Vincent steals the $1500 in drug money Raymond got at the rave, along with Raymond’s Vicodin and Xanax prescriptions, his latest issue of Soldier of Fortune and his pickup truck, and heads off to Manhattan.

Meyer Maslow has devoted his adult life and the efforts of his foundation to promoting peace and understanding and helping oppressed people throughout the world. He is not without his weaknesses, including envy, vanity, a taste for luxury, and a willingness both to do good and to do well. In the words of Bonnie Kalen, his director of development, Meyer “insists on having it all at once: history, God, and expensive clothes. He demands his right to wear Armani while using a mystical tale from Rabbi Nachman to make a point about former Soviet bloc politics or hunger in Rwanda.”

The moment Vincent arrives at the foundation headquarters turns out to be auspicious. Half the tickets for the foundation’s upcoming fund-raising dinner are unsold, Meyer’s latest book is not selling well, and a pot scandal the previous summer at the foundation’s Pride and Prejudice friendship camp for teenagers (“Keep our pride! Lose our prejudice!”) has created some bad publicity. Meyer tells Bonnie he has a funny feeling that “Someone is coming. Something’s going to happen.”

That someone turns out to be Vincent, who gives Meyer and Bonnie a version of his life story minus the ecstasy and the thefts. The story “has two levels,” he thinks. “One is the truth, which makes it easy to tell. The second level is not a lie so much as a highlight, drag, and delete.” He has come to them, Vincent says in a sentence he has carefully rehearsed. “I want to help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me.” Because Meyer sees the potential for an “outreach” initiative which could change the minds and hearts of other skinheads, and they are all also aware that a similar defection has recently been a publicity and fund-raising bonanza for the Simon Weisenthal Foundation, Meyer decides to offer Vincent shelter and a job. Because he is afraid that Vincent may change his mind and flee, and because he knows that Bonnie will do almost anything for him, Meyer asks her to let Vincent stay at her suburban home for a few days, until they can make more permanent arrangements for him.

Bonnie is still reeling from a recent divorce, she is frightened and lonely, and her two boys are beginning to worry her. The idealism she brings to her work at the foundation is the best thing in her life. Yet Bonnie suddenly finds herself crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge with a neo-Nazi skinhead in the passenger seat, trying to figure out how she has gotten into this situation and how she is going to introduce him to her sons. Danny, her angry, pot-smoking sixteen-year-old, wonders “What the hell is Mom thinking? Inviting some demented tweaker to stay here until one night, high on crystal meth, he figures out they’re Satanists and that God needs him to hack them up and stash them in the freezer.” Max, her gentle and confused twelve-year-oldDanny calls him “the middle-school Dalai Lama”simply observes that “Mom’s just trying to be a good person.”

Over the next three monthswhich are highlighted by set pieces that include a dinner party at the Maslows’ to see if Vincent can be trusted to mingle with the foundation’s supporters, the fund-raising event at the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum where Vincent is the featured speaker, the media frenzy that follows that event, and an appearance by Vincent and Meyer on the Oprah-like Chandler showVincent, Meyer, Bonnie, and Danny all have changes of heart. The story unfolds through alternating chapters of interior monologue by these four characters, each of which displays an eye for the absurd and an ear for the idioms of contemporary American speech that have long been Prose’s hallmarks. Along the way, Prose presents an entertaining comedy of manners which skewers class, the culture of celebrity, the press, reality television and talk shows, pop psychology, self-help movements, cults, public high school administrators, philanthropy, fund-raising and public relations, pretentious restaurants, and a host of other targets.

At the same time, Prose is never cynical about her characters. By allowing readers access to the thoughts of Vincent, Meyer, Bonnie, and Danny, she lets each of these characters emerge as a complex human being with both high aspirations and baser motives. She even manages to make characters such as Bonnie’s former husband Joel and Vincent’s cousin Raymond more than caricatures. Parts of A Changed Man may remind readers of Raymond Carver country, of Tom Wolfe’s dissections of contemporary mores, or of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There (1970). Through references to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853) and George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872), however, Prose both underlines some of the themes in A Changed Man and suggests that her comedy has larger ambitions.

In her own way, Prose means to write a comic novel which does what Dickens did: dissect social reality by examining believable characters who embody and are shaped by the contradictions of the time. Ultimately, the novel’s epigraph from Middlemarch is the key to understanding Prose’s attitude about, and sympathy for, her characters. “I have a belief on my own and it comforts me . . . That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evilwidening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.” It is easy to imagine Meyer Maslow or Bonnie Kaden as part of that power, but it takes a novelist of Prose’s talent and empathy to convince readers that Vincent Nolan might widen the skirts of light too.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

Booklist 101, no. 7 (December 1, 2004): 619.

Entertainment Weekly, March 11, 2005, p. 106.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 1 (January 1, 2005): 17.

Library Journal 130, no. 1 (January, 2005): 100.

The New Leader 88, no. 2 (March/April, 2005): 29-31.

New York 38, no. 8 (March 7, 2005): 72.

The New York Times 154 (March 14, 2005): E4.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (March 27, 2005): 14-15.

The New Yorker 81, no. 6 (March 28, 2005): 77.

People 63, no. 9 (March 7, 2005): 51.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 51 (December 20, 2004): 34.

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