This Week's Reads

Francine Prose, and Jordan Fisher Smith.

A Changed Man

By Francine Prose (HarperCollins, $24.95) Inspired by a hit of Ecstasy, a 32-year-old white supremacist walks into the offices of the World Brotherhood Watch 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 America being what it is, he opts to turn his apostasy into a career move. (For more on this, see David Brock or David Horowitz.) Brotherhood Watch is only too happy to help, and their relationship quickly becomes one of mutual exploitation. The touchy-feely human-rights organization is the pet project of one Meyer Maslow, a Holocaust survivor and humanitarian activist as dedicated to helping the oppressed as he is to advancing his book sales. He eagerly pimps out the former Nazi as a fund-raising tool and media hors d'oeuvre, while Vincent receives a modest stipend with room and board. Maslow's lieutenant, Bonnie Kalen, is the proverbial woman behind the great man. Part fund-raiser, part His Gal Friday, she's a freshly dumped divorcee with two kids in the burbs and an ego the size of Papa Smurf's shot glass. When she's elected to halfway-house Vincent, the stage is set for more than a little sexual-familial tension. Prose (Blue Angel) has written a novel with an identity crisis: It stops short of flat-out satire, but it's not simply a midlife- crisis romance. It ribs at feel-good multiculturalism and the inherent contradictions of "social change" as a profession. Prose brings us inside the heads of characters who belabor every decision, every waking moment of their lives with self-doubt and recrimination fit for a Woody Allen film. While there's humor in these interior monologues, the reader can't help but feel frustrated as the story constantly grinds to a halt for yet another angst installment. A Changed Man tries hard, and it has its finger on the pulse of something prevalent in the culture right now, namely, how everyone is aware of how his or her life might fit into a media narrative. Yet however much Prose's characters are involved in a career-furthering scam, they still have traces of genuine idealism, too. Such dissonance makes for an interesting, if exhausting, read. JOHN DICKER Francine Prose will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 6 p.m. Wed., April 6. Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra

By Jordan Fisher Smith (Houghton Mifflin, $24) An alternate subtitle for this short memoir might've been COPS in the Woods, since law enforcement, not protecting wildlife, turns out to be the greater part of a ranger's job. California's Auburn State Recreation Area, where Jordan Fisher Smith spent some 14 years on patrol working for the National Park Service, sounds like the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie—a place where yahoos go to shoot guns, abandon cars, cook crystal meth, and poach trees and game. The wonder of it is that the "condemned landscape"—ravaged by gold mining, then scheduled to be drowned by a dam—actually fights back. When Smith shows up for duty in 1986, however, the valleys of the American River—which flows from the Sierras toward Sacramento—are governed mainly by the attitude of "it'll all be underwater soon." In this somewhat lawless climate, where skydivers and suicides plunge off a bridge over the as-yet unfilled lake, where rogue gold miners stake claims on state land, he describes his job thusly: "A park ranger is a protector. You protect the land from the people, the people from the land, the people from each other, and the people from themselves." Accordingly, Nature Noir reads like a cross between Jack Webb and Henry Thoreau, and it's the police-beat stuff that's actually more interesting—partly because so many other nature writers got to the woods before Smith. Few, on the other hand, have had to arrest and cuff drug dealers and timber poachers, or raft down white-water rapids just to serve legal papers to squatters who tend to be armed with shotguns. There's also a bit of postal-service insanity among Smith's fellow federal clock-watchers, all of them grinding it out toward their pensions. He goes pretty light on his often tedious workplace, which sounds like The Office outdoors, and barely even touches upon his own personal life (marriage and divorce are fleetingly mentioned). If there's a defense against career burnout, it comes from Smith's close attention to how the American River area is stealthily creeping back. Every so often, he looks up from his arrest reports to take notes in his field journal. "After a century and a half of condemnation to usefulness there was a great longing back toward wilderness in these canyons," he writes. "It was desire; it was the force behind everything that happens without human permission or design." A true noir ends badly, which makes the book's title a happy misnomer. If Smith can find beauty and recovery along his "temporary river," there may yet be hope for our Middle Fork, our clear cuts, and the legacy of our past pioneer mistakes. BRIAN MILLER Jordan Fisher Smith will appear at University Book Store, 7:30 p.m. Wed., April 6; and at Eagle Harbor Books, 157 Winslow Way E. (Bainbridge Island), 206-824-5332, 7:30 p.m. Thurs. April 7.

 
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