One spring afternoon, Vincent Nolan, a young neo-Nazi walks into the office of a human rights foundation headed by Meyer Maslow, a charismatic Holocaust survivor. Vincent announces that he wants to make a radical change. But what is Maslow to make of this rough-looking stranger with Waffen SS tattoos who says that his mission is to save guys like him from becoming guys like him?
As Vincent gradually turns into the sort of person who might actually be able to do that, he also begins to transform everyone around him, including Maslow himself. Masterfully plotted, darkly comic, A Changed Man poses essential questions about human nature, morality, and the capacity for change, illuminating the everyday transactions, both political and personal, in our lives.
About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:April 1, 1947
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Education:B.A., Radcliffe College, 1968
Read an Excerpt
A Changed Man
Nolan pulls into the parking garage, braced for the Rican attendant with the cojones big enough to make a point of wondering what this rusted hunk of Chevy pickup junk is doing in Jag-u-ar City. But the ticket-spitting machine doesn't much care what Nolan's driving. It lifts its arm, like a benediction, like the hand of God dividing the Red Sea. Nolan passes a dozen empty spots and drives up to the top level, where he turns in beside a dusty van that hasn't been anywhere lately. He grabs his duffel bag, jumps out, inhales, filling his lungs with damp cement-y air. So far, so good, he likes the garage. He wishes he could stay here. He finds the stairwell where he would hide were he planning a mugging, corkscrews down five flights of stairs, and plunges into the honking inferno of midafternoon Times Square.
He's never seen it this bad. A giant mosh pit with cars. Just walking demands concentration, like driving in heavy traffic. He remembers the old Times Square on those righteous long-ago weekends when he and his high school friends took the bus into the city to get hammered and eyeball the hookers. He's read about the new Disneyfied theme park Times Squareland, but that's way more complicated than what he needs to deal with right now, which is navigating without plowing into some little old lady. A fuzzball of pure pressure expands inside his chest, stoked by patches of soggy shirt, clinging to his rib cage.
It's eighty, maybe eighty-five, and he's the only guy in New York wearing a long-sleeved jersey. All the white men seem to be running personal air conditioners inside their fancy Italian suits, unlike the blacks and Latinos, who have already soaked through their T-shirts. What does that make Nolan? The only white guy sweating. The only human of any kind gagging from exhaust fumes. While Nolan's been off in the boondocks with his friends and their Aryan Homeland wet dream, an alien life-form has evolved in the nation's cities, a hybrid species bred to survive on dog piss and carbon monoxide. Nolan needs to stop thinking that way. Attitude is crucial.
Last night, at his cousin Raymond's, he'd watched the TV weatherchipmunk chirping about the heat wave, so unseasonable for April, reassuring local viewers with his records and statistics lest anyone think: Look out, global warming, the world is ending right now. Why is everyone so surprised that the planet's cutting them loose? Ecological Armageddon was just what the doctor ordered to take Nolan's mind off his own problems as he'd faced the dark hours ahead until it was time to get up and borrow Cousin Raymond's truck, his money and pills, and vanish into the ozone. Nolan's hardly slept for two weeks, ever since he decided to turn. Two Xanax did nothing to stop his lab-rat brain from racing from one micro-detail to another.
Like, for example, sleeve length. Should he hide the tattoos? Or just wear a T-shirt and let them do the talking? If one picture's worth a thousand words, that's the first two thousand right there, two thousand minus the hi howareya nicetameetcha. Which was one reason to get the tats: cut through a load of hot air. On the other hand, strolling into the office of World Brotherhood Watch with Waffen-SS bolts on one bicep and a death's-head on the other might make it harder for Nolan to get his point across -- let's say, if the people he's talking to are hiding under their desks. Nolan wouldn't blame them. It hasn't been all that long since that lone-wolf lunatic in L.A. shot up the Jewish temple preschool.
In any case, it's going to be tough, explaining what he's doing at Brotherhood Watch, especially since Nolan himself isn't exactly sure. There are some . . . practical issues involved with stealing Raymond's truck plus the fifteen hundred bucks that, if you want to be literal, belongs to the Aryan Resistance Movement. But there's more to it than that. If it were just a question of disappearing and starting over, Nolan could have some fun. Sell SUVs in Palm Springs, deal blackjack in Las Vegas. Go to Disney World, put on a Goofy suit, let toddlers fuck with his head.
What he'd really like to do is give every man, woman, and child in the world the exact same hit of Ecstasy, the same tiny candy, pink as a kitten's tongue, that managed to turn his head around, or more precisely, to give his head a little -- well, a fairly big -- push in the direction it was already headed. But that's not going to happen, free Ex for the human race, so maybe the next best thing is to help other people find a more gradual route to the place where the Ex took Nolan.
Meanwhile, he knows that thinking like this will only get in his way. He'll stay cooler if he convinces himself that he's just interviewing for a job.
Has it only been two weeks since Nolan finally made up his mind? A long two weeks of trying to figure it out, even -- especially -- after he knew how he was going to do it.
No one promised it would be easy. But Nolan has prepared. He's read up, starting with two books by Meyer Maslow, the founder and current head of the World Brotherhood Watch Foundation. He actually went out and ordered them through the bookstore in the mall. The first book, The Kindness of Strangers -- Maslow's tribute to the people who saved his life when he was on the run from the Nazis -- was what made Nolan begin to think that maybe his plan could work.
For balance, Nolan has also been reading The Way of the Warrior, a paperback he took from the tire shop, borrowed from the backseat of a Ford Expedition some yuppie brought in for the Firestone recall.A Changed Man
A Novel. Copyright © by Francine Prose. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
“A novel of ideas, and provocative ones. Classthe dirty American secretis no secret to Prose.”
“American literature’s finest satirist of professionals with problems . . . Prose knows the territory and tweaks it deliciously.”
Reading Group Guide
One spring afternoon, a young neo-Nazi named Vincent Nolan walks into the Manhattan office of World Brotherhood Watch, a human rights foundation headed by a charismatic Holocaust survivor, Meyer Maslow. Vincent announces that he wants to make a radical change in his life. But what is Maslow to make of this rough looking stranger who claims to have read Maslow's books, who has Waffen SS tattoos under his shirtsleeves, and who says that his mission is to save guys like him from becoming guys like him?
As Vincent gradually turns into the sort of person who might actually be able to achieve his objective, he succeeds in transforming those around him: Maslow, who fears that heroism has become a desk job; Bonnie Kalen, the foundation's fundraiser, a divorced single mother and a devoted believer in Maslow's crusade against intolerance and injustice; and Bonnie's teenage son, Danny, whose take on the world around him is at once open-hearted, sharp-eyed, and as fundamentally decent as his mother's.
Masterfully plotted and darkly comic, A Changed Man illuminates the everyday transactions in our lives, exposing what remains invisible in plain sight in our drug-addled and media-driven culture. A Changed Man poses the essential questions: What constitutes a life worth living? Is it possible to change? What does it mean to be a moral human being? The fearless intelligence, wit, and humanity that inform this novel make it Francine Prose's most accomplished yet.
Questions for Discussion
- At the start of A Changed Man, we see Vincent Nolan, warts and all, during his impromptu interview at World Brotherhood Watch. Who is Vincent Nolan? What were your initial impressions of his character, and how did those impressions change over the course of the novel?
- How does Meyer Maslow's experience as a Holocaust survivor color his day-to-day outlook as leader of a human rights organization? What makes him tick? What are some essential contradictions in his personality?
- Discuss Bonnie Kalen's attitudes toward the men in her life -- her ex-husband, Joel; her sons, Danny and Max; her new house guest, Vincent Nolan; and her saintly boss, Meyer Maslow. To what extent does Bonnie define herself in terms of these relationships?
- How does World Brotherhood Watch use Vincent Nolan to its advantage? How does Vincent transition from neo-Nazi skinhead to national celebrity?
- Describe Bonnie Kalen's relationship with her sons, Danny and Max. What happens to that relationship when Vincent Nolan enters their lives? Does Nolan serve as a father-figure for the boys, or is his role in the family more complex?
- How would you characterize Vincent's reunion with his cousin, Raymond, on the television program, Chandler? What were your impressions of this development? What did you think of Danny Kalen and Meyer Maslow's involvement?
- Would you describe Danny and Max Kalen as typical adolescents and siblings? How prominently does their parents' divorce factor into their lives? How does each one cope with the challenges of teenage adulthood?
- How does faith factor into the choices and decisions made by Meyer Maslow, Bonnie Kalen, and Vincent Nolan? Is faith necessary for true change?
- By the end of A Changed Man, Vincent's future is uncertain. Do you see any hope of a relationship for Bonnie and Vincent? What were your thoughts at the novel's close?
About the Author