A Changed Man by Francine Prose

Always ready with a quick wit and incisive insight, Francine Prose follows up her fictional critique of academia in Blue Angel with a collision — one might call it — of polar opposites. The World Brotherhood Watch, an organization founded by Jewish Holocaust survivor Meyer Maslow, enters a new round in its battle against hate when it adopts “reformed” skinhead Vincent Nolan as its new mascot. But it turns out that Nolan, a former member of the ARM — Aryan Resistance Movement or American Rights Movement, depending on who you ask — is less a former menace and social threat than he is a lost soul adrift, who chooses sides largely based on whose couch he’s crashing on that night.

From the moment Vincent Nolan enters the Brotherhood Watch offices and offers to “help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me,” Meyer Maslow and his assistant Bonnie latch onto him like a child to candy. Vincent Nolan is the best new PR opportunity they’ve stumbled upon in ages, and he’s appeared from nowhere. In their haste, they don’t stop to ask themselves the usual commonsensical questions: Who is this guy? What’s the story behind his story? They take him at face value because they see possibilities, for the organization, for their fundraising, and, for proof that Maslow’s now-hackneyed message, “Peace through Change,” still has the power to change lives.

Vincent Nolan’s act is a convincing one; one that even he begins to believe the more he preaches it. He happens to omit the lesser facts, facets of his former life that he now hides, facts such as how he headed off to New York City with a bundle of cash, pills, and a car he lifted from his cousin. Or that he was fired from his job as a swimming pool cleaner when he threw an old crotchety woman, a Jew, into her pool during an argument. He doesn’t lie when he says he’s motivated by Maslow’s motivational books, but then there’s also that book of warrior ideology that’s so important to him–he envisions himself as some eclectic mixture of visionary and soldier who both aids and attacks the other side, the Watch to which he eventually defects.

Plus, Nolan’s conversion is precipitated by chemical change, not by thought and reason. Ecstasy inspires him to stop preaching hate: “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.” Conversions aren’t rational, though. They strike from out of the blue, and the only common factor is that they bring about a radical change of vision. So what if this doesn’t meet the cookie-cutter needs of Brotherhood Watch? Nolan always manages to feed a different, believable, and readily consumed story to his audience.

That Nolan isn’t the convert Brotherhood Watch professes him to be raises the question of one’s fundamental ability to change. Maslow compares a person’s spiritual capacity to the human ability to generate fat cells — human bodies only generate fat cells in youth, and adults only have that pre-established reservoir to draw from and replenish. Nolan apparently has more spiritual reserve than the common skinhead; he’s just a bit confused with where he stands and taking on the words and beliefs of others is more rewarding and reassuring than finding his own. Vincent didn’t exactly hate people before his conversion: he merely had a streak of bad luck, and in the end it was easier to adopt his cousin’s ideology while he ate his food and slept on his couch. And so when Nolan stays at Bonnie’s house and preaches the mantra of the Brotherhood Watch, little has changed except for an upgrade in accommodations.

Nolan’s actions are examined on both macroscopic and microscopic levels, through his work for the Brotherhood Watch, through his speeches that soften rough edges, through his daily interactions with Bonnie and her sons. He’s a chameleon for the Brotherhood Watch, which projects him as the person they want him to be. For Maslow, selling the idea of Vincent’s reform is fundamentally more important than unearthing the story behind Vincent Nolan’s sudden appearance: “Why should Meyer be surprised that Vincent’s story is easier to market? It’s new. They’re tired of Meyer’s song and dance. The Holocaust is over. Please, no more Hitler, no more ovens, no more filthy, skeletal half dead Jews in striped pajamas. It’s time to move on. Enough with the Hungarian kid who had unspeakable things done to him and survived. Let’s concentrate on this younger, handsomer model who once had a couple of racist thoughts and later changed his mind.” To Meyer and the Watch in general, Nolan is nothing more than a clever marketing scheme, valued as much as the cash his words bring in. Yet at the same time, Vincent becomes a central figure in Bonnie’s family life. Underneath it all, Nolan wishes to connect; he truly does with Bonnie and her children. Once her children see past Vincent’s frightening exterior–bald head, ARM tattoos, and all–he’s a more supportive, caring presence than their virtually absent father, a respected cardiologist who’s about to remarry.

The Brotherhood Watch, Bonnie, the newspapers, and the community want to believe the story that Nolan delivers, and so they do. In reality, all that Nolan’s “conversion” proves is how lost and disaffected one can become when life deals a bad hand, and how easy it is for both sides to couch the world in definitive terms, to interpret it as they wish, when in truth, degrees of hate and love and life exist in various shades of gray. While the story ends rather predictably, Prose comes through yet again with her ability to create a penetrating social vision. Line by line, her crisp writing, her broad imagination, and her nuanced observations keep the ideas rolling and the characters real, even when the storyline lags.