A Changed Man
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...
(The entire section is 1,578 words.)