Comedy has a few rules, and heading the list is: You don't make a Holocaust survivor a butt of satire. Francine Prose, whose previous "Blue Angel" was a finalist for the National Book Award, apparently didn't get that memo. Or else she did, and chose to breakdance all over it - in the process flinging sacred cows farther than the catapult did in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." That she succeeds as well as she does is a testament to her ability as a writer, but one can't help wondering if she had to take aim at that particular target.
"Blue Angel" delved into the hypocrisies of academia and the style of political correctness that resided on elite campuses in the 1990s. "A Changed Man" takes on corporate philanthropy: the type of charity that requires millions of dollars, a working knowledge of Emily Post, and a charge account at Armani to practice. Her chief practitioner is Meyer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor, author, and founder of the human rights group World Brotherhood Watch.
"Meyer insists on having it all at once, history, God, and expensive clothes. He demands his right to wear Armani while using a mystical tale from Rabbi Nachman to make a point about former Soviet bloc politics or hunger in Rwanda." After all, he's earned the right - the hard way. Meyer feels ashamed about using his experiences during World War II "as a trump card to win every argument, to establish your credentials in the field of suffering. But the truth is, it is a trump card. And soon there will be no one left alive with the indisputable right to play it."
"A Changed Man" opens when a neo-Nazi named Vincent Nolan walks into the World Brotherhood Watch offices and declares he's been transformed and wants to prevent "guys like him from becoming guys like him." Oh, and he needs a place to hide from his former comrades - from whom he swiped a truck, some prescription drugs, and $1,500 in cash (although he omits these little details from his sales pitch).
Meyer's latest book isn't exactly topping the bestseller charts, and a planned fundraising dinner is proving as popular as spinach at a 3-year-old's birthday party, so Meyer decides to use the publicity from Vincent's reformation to boost his foundation's sagging fortunes.
He takes Vincent in, or rather, he makes one of his employees do so. Bonnie Kalen - a recently divorced mom - would do anything for Meyer, including bring a reformed white supremacist home to live with her and her two sons. (She does, however, draw the line at picking up Meyer's dry cleaning.)
Not convinced about the risks Prose takes here? An icy atmosphere pervaded the Shrine Auditorium last month when Oscar host Chris Rock dared to suggest that British actor Jude Law had appeared in too many movies in 2004. Imagine if he'd gone on with Prose's material.
Prose certainly isn't the first writer to take aim at the world of professional philanthropy. Dickens brilliantly skewered it in his best novel, "Bleak House," which Prose uses as a recurring motif. Meyer is terrified of becoming like Mrs. Jellyby, who tirelessly campaigned for a mission to Africa while letting her own children live in filth.
What he doesn't seem to notice is that Bonnie is living his nightmare. By the time she makes the long commute home, she's so exhausted that "home-cooking" means pizza or Chinese food eaten on paper plates. Her 16-year-old, Danny, swears openly in front of his mother, has a serious marijuana habit, and is perilously close to failing in school. (Her 12-year-old, Max, is still too emotionally fragile from his dad's abandonment to do much more than watch TV and cling to his two remaining family members.)
The difference is that, where Mrs. Jellyby was insufferably serene in the knowledge that her life was dedicated to a noble cause, Bonnie is frantic.
That self-awareness is a priceless gift that Prose gives to all her main characters, including Vincent, the most articulate neo-Nazi this side of the movie "American History X." It keeps the satire from becoming too scabrous. And most of the characters are sincere in their desire to help lighten the world's darkness, even if they haven't a clue how best to go about it. "With her admirable but hopeless desire to be good, to do good, Bonnie reminds Irene [Meyer's wife] of that ninny in 'Middlemarch.' "
Prose combines a bracing energy with a deft touch in the details. Even her throwaway gags are good - take the Watch's Pride and Prejudice Camps for teens. (Motto: Keep our pride! Lose our prejudice!)
But the last act falters, just a little. It feels as if Prose pulled her last punch - instead of going for a total knockout, she settled for a judge's ruling and a jury-rigged happy ending.
And, when all is said and done, one can't help wondering what's wrong with people trying to help others? They may be vain, shallow, and in it for their own self-interest - but at least they're trying.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.