Trenton Makes a Searing Look at Dreams and Identity


By Tadzio Koelb
Knopf, 224 pages

If John Steinbeck had been born later, he might have tackled something akin to Trenton Makes. There are decided Steinbeck elements to Tadzio Koelb's debut novel, including the use of intercalary chapters, the elegiac sweep of his prose, and nods to the forgotten man. Except for Koelb, the forgotten "man" is a woman who assumes a male identity.

Trenton Makes unfolds in two acts, the first set between 1946 and 1952, the second occurring in 1971. This means the plot is bookended by the end of World War Two and surging disenchantment with the Vietnam War. Call it a metaphorical shift from triumphalism to the beginning of the end of the American Century, a major component of which was loss of America's near monopoly of global capitalism and its slide toward an uncertain economic future. Officially, stagflation and recession began in 1973, but Rust Belt cities such as Trenton, New Jersey were tragically precocious in their demise.
Koelb takes this a step further by casting doubt as to whether the American Century was real in the first place. If it was an illusion, perhaps so too is the American Dream. After all, that concept was always problematic for people of color, recent immigrants, those living near the margins, and women—all of whom had (in Langston Hughes' words) dreams deferred.   

Questions of identity lie at the heart of Trenton Makes. Its protagonist is Abe Kunstler—both of them. The first Abe is a psychologically scarred World War Two veteran who wants his/her slice of the American Dream. Part of that Dream is economic—a good job—but a major part of it is rooted in prevailing social norms of male privilege. Abe probably would have been a bland, but decent guy, if only drink, financial frustration, lust, and social scripts hadn't gotten in the way. He befriends and ultimately seeks to possess a taxi dancer named Inez, but allows his demons to overwhelm his better angels. During one of his frequent drunken, abusive, and libidinal moments, Inez fights back, murders Abe, butchers his body, and feeds it to the basement furnace. The parallel between Abe's burning and Trenton's industrial smoke is both poignant and a harbinger. Inez's own violence comes from pent up rage for which Abe is a sacrifice for past wrongs:

… until the war she was never allowed to do any but the most meaningless work and she was condemned to poverty, which seemed to her as much a feature  of her women's form as any physical part. The only ladder meeting the wall of constraint was a man, so she traded the little she had, which was the still body beneath the one that bucked and jerked, and in return received as much or as little as these were able or willing to offer her.

Koelb uses this singular horror to infer the collective horrors of postwar women whose dreams were replaced by proscribed subservience. Departed Abe, of course, never really knew Inez, or other women like her. The taxi driver he tried to lord over had honed her strength on wartime assembly lines, preparation for future work as a factory wirepuller. The book's opening epigraph is from Nietzsche: "Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?" Inez's attempt is a radical one: she assumes Abe's identity and spends much of her time passing as a man.**

However, Koelb's use of Nietzsche is more ironic than profound. It's one thing to take action, yet quite another to overcome. Like all double lives, that of Inez is fraught with logistical nightmares and the ever-present fear of exposure, not to mention a child and being so haunted by her bloody deed that Abe inhabits her as much as she inhabits him. How does one walk such a tightrope when the only lifeline is a wisp of factory smoke?

Part two delves into transference. Does inhabiting another mean you also host their demons? Can one hope to escape poverty in a place such as Trenton? It's hard with a mutilated hand, closed factories, and dead-end service industry alternatives. There's another transference that I will not reveal, but suffice it to say that the burden of secrets, indiscretion, estrangement, the rise of the counterculture, decaying conditions in Vietnam, and Trenton's concomitant decline aren't compatible with a happy ending.

This is a tough, but occasionally brilliant book. Earlier I alluded to Steinbeck, which is quite a load to ask someone to bear, and Koelb can't always hoist it. Steinbeck excelled at fusing elegant prose with masterful storytelling. Koelb is a superb wordsmith, but sometimes he's too clever for his own good. I suspect other writers will rank this book higher than the reading public, parts of which will find the story thread hard to stitch. The book has two parts, but it's not linear within them and careful focus is needed to keep straight when Koelb is writing about Abe, Inez as Abe, Abe/Inez as Inez, or perhaps another person altogether. The motives of secondary characters are often as clouded as the true paternity of Inez's child and, to be frank, part two often feels forced.

Maybe this is okay and Koelb has little interest in narrative for its own sake. He certainly has important things to say and infer about American society. An iconic Delaware River bridge in Trenton bears the slogan: "Trenton Makes, the World Takes." Koelb suggests we should emphasize the second part and be wary of what is made in the first. Whether the proverbial average reader will get this remains to be seen, but props to Koelb for trying.

Rob Weir

**One commentator has said that I missed the twist that Abe was always a woman posing as a man. This may be correct and, I may have incorrectly conflated characters. if so, I apologize for the error. Koelb's writing is often oblique and I may have simply gotten lost in language that is seldom straight forward.


Anonymous said...

You seem to have misunderstood at least one part of the novel: Inez doesn't kill anyone. Abe Kunstler is a woman who killed her husband and then later meets and "marries" Inez, using her alcoholism as a way to control her.

Phoenix Brown & Lars Vigo said...

You may be right. One thing I should have said in the reviews is that the prose is sometimes too literary for its own good. I thought that Koelb needed Trenton itself to be grittier and that he often lost himself in his own prose. There were other places in which I wasn't sure of motives or who was doing what.