Illustration by John E. MinerThe opening scene of Francine Proses new novel is pretty irresistible: A tense, duffel-bag-carrying skinhead walks out of the sweltering Manhattan heat into the cool, elegant midtown offices of a Jewish-run human-rights watchdog group. Any sensible, sensitive reader would of course stay tuned to find out what develops next. A bloodbath? A hostage crisis? A probing, Prosean literary riff on Falling Down? No, no and no. Instead of letting loose with an assault rifle or pipe bomb, the engaging 32-year-old fellow with the Waffen-SS thunderbolt and deaths-head tattoos up and down his arms presents himself to the earnest do-gooders of World Brotherhood Watch as a lost soul in the midst of a spiritual crisis. I want to help you guys, Vincent Nolan tells WBWs founder, Meyer Maslow, and his chief fund-raiser and glorified gofer, Bonnie Kalen. I want to help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me. From that moment on, Vincent erstwhile member of the American Rights Movement/Aryan Resistance Movement (ARM), low-rent ladies man and Vicodin addict Meyer, Bonnie and the reader embark on a roller-coaster ride, with the ordinarily deft Prose firmly at the controls. Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, one cant help feeling that the ride would have been twice as enjoyable, and infinitely more bracing, if it had been half as long. This deflating sense of being pushed and dragged around the books increasingly familiar tracks is all the keener in light of everything the novel has going for it. Francine Prose has proved an agile dissector of upper-middle-class humbug, sexual and political correctness, and artistic cant in the recent Blue Angel, or the excellent novellas in Guided Tours of Hell and the setup of A Changed Man would seem to be right in her wheelhouse. The societal bugaboos of race and class; the broad canvas of haves, have-nots and never-ever-gonna-haves democratically bumping up against each other; the gender games we all play Prose has manipulated these plot elements and devices with a sure, crafty touch in the past. In A Changed Man, though, the satirical barbs are blunted. The targets are there, all right manipulative Vincent, seeking absolution for vaguely defined crimes; charismatic Holocaust survivor and best-selling author Meyer, banking on liberal guilt; frazzled and desperately needy Bonnie, living life in a cringe but the narratives cumulative effect is like watching someone shoot slow-moving fish in a bottomless barrel. When a well-meaning young New York Times reporter visits the WBW headquarters to interview Vincent about his conversion from ARM foot soldier to paragon of tolerance, and in the process offers Meyer Maslow a backhanded compliment about the power of his books to change lives, the pettiness of Maslows response sounds more like a labored authorial joke than a cutting insight into one the novels integral characters: It takes Meyer a few seconds to decide if she could possibly mean what he thinks she means. Is she saying that his book could have converted a real Nazi, could somehow have helped dismantle the German war machine? The woman is an idiot. Shes probably the kind who thinks if she went to bed with Hitler and taught him about true love, that would have been the Final Solution. What really hurts is that there might be a terrific novel (or two) buried inside A Changed Man, and Prose is probably just the person to write it. Several chapters, especially a lengthy, pitch-perfect dinner-party set piece, are mini-master classes in pacing, tone, characterization in effect, in writing smart fiction. One teenage character, the older of Bonnie Kalens two sons, is so artfully drawn that hes nothing less than a flesh-and-blood protagonist in search of his own coming-of-age novel. Ultimately, though, the book doesnt do justice to its own ambitions. A strange beast, both ponderous and glib, A Changed Man goes nowhere concrete, and takes its sweet time getting there. A CHANGED MAN | By FRANCINE PROSE | HarperCollins| 432 pages| $25 hardcover
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