Changed's Heart

Inspired by a hit of Ecstasy, a 32-year-old white supremacist shows up at a Manhattan human rights foundation and declares himself an ex-pièce de Aryan résistance. Vincent Nolan, the eponymous "changed man" of Francine Prose's new novel, could go about his transformation in any number of ways but decides instead to do the American thing and turn his apostasy into a career move. (For more on this, see the twin Davids of American politics: Brock and Horowitz.)

Prose, who in addition to A Changed Man has also written Blue Angel, Household Saints and The Lives of the Muses, has created a unique prototype in Vincent: an extremist who's not extreme. Look past the SS thunderbolt tattoos and the head o' skin, and he's just a working-class man who's made a few, um, bad decisions. Really bad decisions, actually. He and his comrades might've preached white revolution, but they really just drank beer, watched TV and whined about the Jewish media.

"The whole subject is scary," Prose says. "It has so much to do with things we're not supposed to talk about: class, race and even domestic terrorism. It's not like writing my darling coming-of-age novel I've never written." At the same time, the less than wild world of America's racist fringe doesn't necessarily mean violence. For every Tim McVeigh, there are hundreds of armchair Aryans who are too lazy or too scared to act on their convictions.

"As you find out as you go on the Internet, there's a lot of white supremacists in the country, but there's thankfully not that many reported incidents of beatings and murders by white supremacists," she says. "Though I certainly don't imagine that I was writing about the only white supremacists." She isn't really writing about racists or racism at all. Her novel has more to say about how jealousy and power grabs exist in any organization no matter how lofty its mission.

Not long after declaring he wants to "help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me," Vincent becomes the World Brotherhood Watch Foundation's media darling. He does the talk shows, dresses respectably for black-tie fund-raisers and quickly learns that his quick change of fortune hinges on being the best dancing monkey he can be. Like everyone in the idealistic institution that is the World Brotherhood Watch Foundation, he's deeply aware of how his own narrative is both a gimmick and a wedge. A racist's change of heart snuggles nicely into the Oprah-esque tableaux of touchy-feely human interest television. And yet both he and his handlers know how ephemeral this fame will prove to be. In fact, Vincent's so in tune with this that he fancies himself jockeying for favor with a dissident Iranian cartoonist as well as the fickle Meyer Malsow, a Holocaust survivor who started Brotherhood Watch and whose commitment to social justice is matched only by his guilt-ridden need to advance his book sales and maintain his brand as a pre-eminent champion of the oppressed. Career anxiety from someone who never had a career and another who made one from suffering and survival is part of this novel's many tensions, as is a love story as improbable as anything found on The Bachelorette.

"I wanted to look at the various foibles, look at the way people's complexity coexists with their desire to do good," Prose says. "In every kind of group I've ever been around there's little judgments about status, little twinges of envy, little anxieties about one's own place in the hierarchy. From CEOs to secretaries, that's part of human nature."