Francine Prose tackles the hopefulness, heartbreak, and contradictions of human existence in her new novel, "A Changed Man." In a last-ditch move to turn...

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“A Changed Man”

by Francine Prose

HarperCollins, 421 pp., $24.95

Francine Prose tackles the hopefulness, heartbreak, and contradictions of human existence in her new novel, “A Changed Man.”

In a last-ditch move to turn his loser life around, neo-Nazi skinhead Vincent Nolan walks into the offices of World Brotherhood Watch and announces, “I want to help you guys save guys like me from becoming guys like me.” His timing couldn’t be better. The Watch, a human-rights organization founded by Holocaust survivor Meyer Maslow, needs an injection of energy. Maslow’s latest inspirational book isn’t selling well, and efforts at publicity and fund-raising aren’t meeting expectations. The Auschwitz survivor and the white supremacist compare their very different tattoos — Maslow’s prison camp number and Nolan’s Waffen-SS bolts — and agree to join forces.

It turns out that Nolan isn’t the only one who wants to change. The author takes us inside the heads of a cast of very different characters, all struggling to make their lives more meaningful.

There’s Maslow himself, who in his advancing years is feeling restless as the foundation’s chief desk jockey. He wants to get back out into the world to roll up his sleeves and do hands-on work.

Bonnie Kalen, the foundation’s fund-raiser, is a divorced mom of two teen boys. Her worrywart tendencies increase exponentially when Maslow asks her to serve as Nolan’s hostess for an unspecified amount of time. Danny, her 16-year-old son, is trying to reconcile his mixed feelings for his father, who left the family to start a new life with a bubbleheaded widow. We even tour the mindset of Nolan’s hate-mongering cousin Raymond.

The slender plot line of “A Changed Man” doesn’t seem to warrant its 400-plus pages, but Prose nails the human hunger for love with such compassion, humor and lacerating insight that readers will forgive the length.