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The Sensitive Skinhead

Reviewed by Blake Eskin
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page BW08


By Francine Prose. HarperCollins. 421 pp. $24.95

In case you missed the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode in which Larry David invites a Holocaust survivor to dinner on the same night as a contestant from "Survivor" and the two men bicker over who suffered more ("no snacks," whines the reality-TV star), Francine Prose spins a variation on this impertinent theme. In the opening scene of A Changed Man, Vincent Nolan, a 32-year-old skinhead with a sensitive side and a peanut allergy, shows up unannounced at the Manhattan headquarters of World Brotherhood Watch. "I want to help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me," Vincent tells Meyer Maslow, the Auschwitz survivor who created the foundation. Wary of Vincent's sincerity, Meyer asks the young man to reveal the SS insignia burnt into his arm, then counters by rolling up his own sleeve.

In Larry David's version, neither survivor backs down, leaving the other diners (and many viewers) squirming silently in their chairs, but Prose, whose new comic novel is broader than it is dark, never lets things get quite so uncomfortable. "My tattoos and yours are not the same," Meyer declares. Vincent, who read Meyer's bestseller The Kindness of Strangers before he arrived, says he knows the difference, and after Meyer scolds him for thinking so, says, "I'm learning."

A Changed Man chronicles World Brotherhood Watch's efforts to reeducate Vincent and to use his transformation to buttress the foundation's sagging fortunes. The point person on both fronts is Bonnie Kalen, the foundation's development director, whom Meyer tells to take Vincent home with her for a few days. A suburban divorcee with two sons, Bonnie is doormat enough to assent, and she carts Vincent back across the Tappan Zee Bridge in her worn-out minivan. You know where this is going, but the romantic tension simmers at the glacial pace of a Crock-Pot, leaving Prose plenty of time to observe shallow ironies along the way: "Bonnie will not yell at her children with a stranger in the house. How depressing that the presence of a neo-Nazi could make a person behave more like a civilized adult."

Vincent wasn't much of a neo-Nazi in the first place; the worst thing he's ever done came earlier, when he tossed an old Jewish lady into her own swimming pool -- a violent outburst, he says, but not a hate crime. That's when he lost his pool-cleaning job, his girlfriend left him, and his white-supremacist cousin, Raymond, took him in. Shaving his head and parroting the ideology of the Aryan Resistance Movement was the easiest way for Vincent to keep his place on Raymond's couch.

Likewise, once he runs off with Raymond's savings and Vicodin supply and takes refuge at World Brotherhood Watch, Vincent learns to fit in quickly, adopting the vocabulary of the well-meaning nonprofit world and taking to his role as the embodiment of the group's slogans: Peace Through Change and One Heart at a Time. And when a young female New York Times reporter grills him about what sparked his transformation, he knows enough to keep mum about the role Ecstasy played in his epiphany. Instead he concocts a middle-of-the-night conversion that happened while listening to Al Green, which softens up the reporter and Bonnie as well.

A Changed Man unfolds in the third person, with a narrator who's always switching shoulders, rotating among Vincent, Meyer, Bonnie and her teenage son, Danny. There's a sameness to the texture of the characters' hidden thoughts, but Prose has a knack for neurotic interior monologue, and her equalizing approach manages to expose everyone's insecurities -- and the unspoken prejudices of the professionally tolerant. Meyer, who's never heard of Al Green and seems jealous of the attention he's arranged to have lavished on Vincent, hears the Times reporter, whose last name is Martinez, ask a stupid question and thinks, "Affirmative action candidate." The implicit premise behind Prose's formal strategy is that, whether people devote their energies to saving Iranian dissidents or dressing up like storm troopers, what motivates them is ultimately some base individual impulse -- loneliness, lust, vanity, pride -- that they may or may not be cognizant of, or the psychopharmacological power of drugs (or Al Green).

While these brisk and sometimes amusing soliloquies of self-doubt make A Changed Man a readable entertainment, they often telegraph what's to come and, what's worse, conspire to put the entire plot in the inconsequential realm of middle-class neurosis. Even Raymond, who spots Vincent in People magazine and decides to come after him, never comes off as a real menace. Prose undercuts the character by painting Raymond as all bark and no bite, and the alarmist folks at World Brotherhood Watch, who somehow intuit his impotence, never call the FBI or hire a bodyguard to protect Vincent. The climactic confrontation, which disrupts a nationally broadcast talk show where Meyer and Vincent have been brought to reenact their dramatic first encounter, devolves instantly into messy farce. By the end of A Changed Man, things work out for the main characters regardless of how they behave. Lacking anything that is truly at stake, this clever, cynical novel risks coming off as empty as the moral posturing it means to send up. •

Blake Eskin is the author of "A Life in Pieces" and the editor of Nextbook.org.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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