Koebl, Tadzio. “Trenton Makes: A Novel”, Doubleday, 2018.
A New American Dream
In 1946 in Trenton, New Jersey a woman kills her husband (an army vet) in a domestic argument, gets rid of his body and becomes Abe Kunstler, the person she killed. As Abe Kunstler, he gets a job in a wire rope factory, buys a car, and successfully romances Inez, an alcoholic dime dancer and creates a home with her. However, Abe felt that this was not enough: to complete his transformation, he needs a son. We then move forward to 1971 and Trenton is no longer the town it once was. Abe’s family life is falling apart yet he is desperate to keep going and searches Trenton for solutions.
“Trenton Makes” is an exploration of identity as well as a look at desperation. I must admit that I was immediately drawn in by the idea of a woman living as a man at such an early point in history and then to jump forward 25 years and revisit him. Unfortunately, the good idea did not work as expected. I expected to see some kind of change in Abe and I didn’t. In fact, his character is undeveloped (but then this is a short book). How this story ends is also unclear to me and when I reaches that point I tried t remember what I had read until then.
In the first half of the book I liked Abe (or who had become Abe)but when the timeline jumps forward significantly, the book becomes less coherent and does not explain what is going on. Abe Kunstler’s change in the second half I drastic and he becomes unlikeable. Something happened in the developmental stages of the novel causing something to be lost. The perspective changes to mostly focus on the son, who has no idea his father was ever a different person and thus cannot expand on why things are the way they are.
This is a book about a strong woman who defends herself when her husband beats her and accidentally killing him and assumes his identity so she can find a sort of freedom. However the strength that was gained in the first half of the story is negated in the second half, almost as if we are reading about two different people.
I really do not care for the way a gay, trans character is shown here. Abe rises in strength to overcome horrible abuse only to fall later. Tadzio Koelb’s writing style is unique and it takes getting used to.
The story unfolds in two haves with the first taking place 25 years before the second half Questions of identity are the heart of the story and there are inferences to the horrors of postwar women whose dreams were replaced by subservience. There is so much here that could have been better developed but was not even with the author throwing out the traditional ways of drawing readers into a story. We have wonderful ideas about power, desperation, identity, creation, and destruction and the story looks at the end of traditional masculinity, and the possibilities and limitations of what can be built for oneself.
Abe’s internal conflicts come to us in italicized passages that are almost stream of consciousness flashbacks. As he is trapped in masculine conformity, Abe denies himself any peace or genuine connection and this gives us a great deal to think about.