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Trenton Makes

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A vivid, brutal, razor-sharp debut about a woman who carves out her share of the American Dream by living as a man

1946: At the apogee of the American Century, the confidence inspired by victory in World War II has spawned a culture of suffocating conformity in thrall to the cult of masculine privilege.

In the hardscrabble industrial city of Trenton, New Jersey, a woman made strong by wartime factory work kills her army veteran husband in a domestic brawl, disposes of his body, and assumes his identity. As Abe Kunstler, he secures a job in a wire rope factory, buys a car, and successfully woos Inez, an alcoholic dime dancer. He makes a home with her, but for Abe, this is not enough: to complete his transformation, he needs a son.

1971: A very different war is under way. The certainties of mid-century triumphalism are a distant, bitter memory, and Trenton's heyday as a factory town is long past. As the sign on the famous bridge says, "Trenton Makes, the World Takes."

The family life Abe has so carefully constructed is crumbling under the intolerable pressures of his long ruse. Desperate to hold on to what he has left, Abe searches for solutions in the dying city.

Written in brilliantly stylized prose, this gripping narrative is a provocative and incisive exploration of the nature of identity, and a disturbing portrait of desperation. Tadzio Koelb has crafted a slim gut shot of a novel that heralds the arrival of a writer of startling talent and imagination.

194 pages, Kindle Edition

First published March 20, 2018

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About the author

Tadzio Koelb

3 books31 followers
Tadzio Koelb is a graduate of the prestigious writing program at the University of East Anglia. In addition to writing fiction he is a reviewer and essayist for a variety of publications that include The New York Times and The Times Literary Supplement. He has lived in Belgium, Spain, France, England, Uzbekistan, Rwanda, Madagascar, and Tunisia. He now lives in Belgium.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 88 reviews
Profile Image for Janelle Janson.
709 reviews440 followers
March 20, 2018
Thank you so much to Doubleday Books for providing my copy of TRENTON MAKES by Tadzio Koelb - all opinions are my own.

During post-World War II, a woman factory worker accidentally kills her abusive husband during a domestic fight and then assumes his identity: Abe Kunstler. Abe moves out of town, finds a new job at a factory, and settles down with a woman named Inez. After so much time, Abe believes he needs a family to blend in. Jump to the second part of the book in 1971 where Abe has a son, Art, who might have figured out his secret. Abe is desperate to keep his secret and his life intact.

TRENTON MAKES is a very well-written and complex novel. This book may not be for everyone as there are triggers such as abuse and sexual assault, so proceed with caution. The writing style is sophisticated, unique and might be difficult to follow as there as some parts written in a stream of consciousness style. The prose is beautiful and the flashback scenes read like poetry. I am blown away by how well Koelb writes Abe’s character and the constant inner-conflict between who he once was and who he has become. The novel’s central themes are identity, gender, and social class. It is difficult to get completely invested in the protagonist as the novel is very short, but overall, this is an impressive piece of literature.
Profile Image for Bandit.
4,509 reviews454 followers
August 11, 2017
This sounded very interesting. A woman living her life as a man in a post war uber masculine American culture of the 1940s and then a 25 year jump in time to revisit the same person in different circumstances and era. The book itself, though, didn't quite work for me. The narrative, while visceral and vivid, managed to maintain a sort of aloofness. Mainly, though, I just didn't care for any of the characters, including the protagonist, and with this sort of book you kind of really have to, because it's a personal journey sort of a story. Maybe this was meant to reflect on the gender and cultural limitations of the blue collar workers in a small town, but usually such stories of personal reinvention are more daring, more audacious, more exciting. And here the main character recreates herself as a factory worker named Abe who proceeds to pour copious amounts of alcohol on his muted rage and frustrations. So essentially the reader follows a story of a charmless unpleasant drunk who isn't comfortable in his life and makes sure no one in his ersatz family is either. The character seems to not lack merely redeeming qualities, but also almost any dimensionality. It's just a one note self loathing descent into a drunken stupor of an existence. Quick enough of a reading, some good descriptive writing, but the story doesn't do the premise justice. Thanks Netgalley.
Profile Image for Magen.
776 reviews31 followers
December 8, 2017
Trigger warnings:

This book is challenging to give a star rating to as I really liked the first half and then ended up not particularly enjoying the second half, which at it's best was only okay. Based on that, I'm giving this book 2.5 stars, which is in the middle of okay and like, which seems about as close to accurate as a star rating system can for this type of book.

This is an odd, but engaging book. I found myself absorbed in the book and needing to find out what happens next. But there are two significant flaws: the change in Kunstler is not well developed (and with this being a short book, there was definitely opportunity to do so instead of jumping forward so many years) and the ending is unclear and vague. Anytime the author writes in full italics, the writing is more challenging and much less clear. It is incredibly frustrating to spend so much time with a book and its characters only to have no resolution in the end.

The writing style is different than typical books and may not be enjoyed by all readers. It took me a bit to adjust to the style, but once I did, it wasn't a problem. The writing style is somewhat vague and the narration is not exactly from the point of view of the characters, but it is. This is to say that there isn't as much internal narration as one typically finds with 3rd person narration. In some ways this worked because Kunstler was a quiet and withdrawn character, but it was frustrating when the perspective changed to two other characters who were not as withdrawn.

It is challenging to talk about this book without spoiling the book. The Goodreads description accurately lays out the plot, almost in too much detail. The first half of the book is well-done and I liked Kunstler, odd though he is. However, in the second half of the book, when the timeline jumps forward significantly, the book is less coherent and less able to explain what is going on. In fact, the description gives more insight into why things are as they are than the book does itself. I think it was a mistake to jump so much time unless the author was going to find another way to show the building cracks which ultimately lead to the end of the book. Kunstler in the second half of the book is so drastically changed, it is hard to relate to him and his character is quite unlikeable. I enjoy when characters significantly develop, even when that development leads to become more grey and/ or unlikeable. But that change needs to be developed and demonstrated. Instead, 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 was a significant flaw for me and cost the book a star.

I mentioned that the vague ending was a problem and frustrating, which it was, but if the prose had simply been written in a clearer, more concise manner, it might have been less frustrating to leave so much unresolved. What I gathered from the ending was the takeaway on strength, which I won't spoil for readers, but that takeway 1) did not sit well with me and in many ways raises significant problems and 2) did not seem to fit within the context of the book. For those interested, Since this is a book about a strong woman who defends herself when her husband beats her, accidentally killing him, and who then goes on to assume his identity so she can find a sort of freedom, which is not how the Goodreads description depicts the plot, The entire half of the second book works to negate the strength and freedom Kunstler once found in assuming the identity of a man and this negation of her strength and resolve is horribly disappointing. It is also disturbing, but it is challenging to articulate the heart of the issue with this, especially without spoilers, but it ultimately, in some ways, only adds to sexist and transphobic views, particularly because his character change was not well-developed.

The more I sit and reflect on this book, the more I take issue with its portal of a gay, trans character who rises in strength to overcome horrible abuse only to fall far from that strength. I won't take a stand on whether I recommend it. If based on the description and reviews, you are interested in this book, then by all means, read it. If you are hesitate based on my review, reach out and I will do my best to point you in the direction best for you.

I received this eARC from the pusblisher Doubleday Books through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
Profile Image for Robin.
1,505 reviews41 followers
April 27, 2018
I'm sorry but that was terrible.
Profile Image for Kristen.
785 reviews45 followers
March 18, 2018
***Spoilers below***

A woman in post-WWII Trenton, NJ, accidentally kills her abusive husband, disposes of his body, and takes his identity. She can do this because he was apparently pretty small and she had worked in a factory during the war making wire rope and was strapping like Rosie the Riveter. She took on his identity as Abe Kunstler, moved to another part of town, went through a string of various odd jobs, and eventually is able to get work at another factory, making wire rope as he had done during the war. Abe has it pretty good until he decides that in order for his ruse to be complete, he needs a wife and child. He meets Inez, an alcoholic taxi dancer, and woos her away from her job at her dance hall. They marry and start to build a life together.  In time, Abe takes steps to start a family. After one on-the-page attempt to get Inez pregnant, the narrative then jumps ahead about 25 years to 1971. Trying for a family apparently worked, because Abe has a son, Art, who has possibly figured out Abe’s secret. Now Abe is determined to hold together everything he has struggled so hard to create.

OK. I want to start by saying this really was a well written book and there are a lot of good things about it. But it has a really odd writing style. It’s something between 3rd person and 1st person. The book was barely 200 pp but it was more like 400 by the time I read and reread everything I didn’t get or misunderstood because of the weird writing style. You do get used to it after a while, but it’s kind of exhausting until then. I like books that challenge me and make me think, but this goes beyond that.

There were obvious issues of gender roles and identity that came into play as well. Honestly, I really don’t know much about women who took on male identities in post-war society. I tried to do some basic research, but all I could turn up was stuff I already knew about how women who had filled men’s roles during the war felt disenfranchised after it ended and they all came back and made them go back to being wives and mothers. Like, duh. One part of this is that, throughout the novel, the woman Abe was before had no identity of her own. She was never referred to by her given name. Whatever identity she had was totally overwritten by Abe’s right from the start. Of course, she would want to have Abe’ identity take over hers eventually, after her intentional transformation, but even prior to that, she had no identity. Additionally, I thought it was weird that NO ONE seems to have missed Inez once she married Abe and moved to another part of town, leaving behind everything from her former life. The book indicated she didn’t have any family, but she still had friends. If one of my friends just disappeared and I never heard from her again, I would call the cops. I don’t understand why no one did this for Inez. It begs the question of whether anyone would have noticed if it had been Abe who had gone missing. Would someone have noticed if it had been a man who went missing instead of a woman? Was this a common-ish thing that happened, women just disappearing because they took a man’s ID and no one went looking to see what happened to them? In Civil War days, I could see that, but I have a hard time with it in the 1940s/1950s. Maybe I misunderstand how it happened, but since there wasn’t an author’s note in the ARC I had to expand upon this, I’m assuming it probably wasn’t as likely to happen as described here.

Also, there’s a BIG question of consent. It isn’t a thing that’s repeated more than once in the book, but the way Abe and Inez conceive their child is just gross. Spoiler alert, but a shitfaced Inez basically gets raped, and a shitfaced random dude from a bar rapes her at Abe’s urging. No one in that relationship has any ability to give lucid consent, not Inez nor the man Abe  tricked. Why? Why was that necessary to include? They could have been one of many childless couples. It would have prevented a lot of problems and the novel could still have focused on Abe’s struggle to live without being discovered. I don't know, just that one brief scene really turned me off on the whole rest of the book.

For all the issues I had with this, I do think it would be an interesting book club selection because there are a ton of things to discuss. I didn't touch on the issues of alcoholism, mental illness, how society treats disfigured people, how society treats veterans, or LGBT issues.
Profile Image for Brooke.
16 reviews3 followers
March 12, 2018
At the center of Trenton Makes is a woman made strong by factory work during World War II who kills her abusive army veteran husband and assumes his identity. As Abe Kunstler, he secures a job in a wire rope factory, makes a home with a woman named Inez, and completes his transformation by "creating" a son.

Tadzio Koelb's novel brilliantly evades traditional ways of drawing readers into a story and forces us to engage with the ideas that propel it: ideas about power, desperation, identity, creation, and destruction. Through its main character, it renders societal shifts after World War II and in the early 70s bodily, sensual, sexual. It explores the death of traditional masculinity, and the possibilities and limitations of what can be built for oneself "in nature's clearings", against the grain of an oppressive society.

Readers are closest to Abe, whose internal conflicts are brilliantly rendered in italicized passages that echo the stream of consciousness flashbacks narrating Joe Christmas' early life in Light in August. Here it is possible to be both repulsed by the violence that Abe enacts to preserve his identity and to understand the desperation that drives him. Trapped in the straight jacket of masculine conformity, Abe denies himself any peace or genuine connection. These passages convey the liminal aspects of identity between the woman and the man she's constructed and it's here that the characterization and the ideas that fuel the novel are seamlessly melded.

Other characters—Inez, their son Art, Abe's friend Jacks, etc.—are rendered somewhat impressionistically and we are reminded that, from Abe's perspective, they are all his creation. It's no coincidence that his son is named "Art". You can see Koelb's background as a painter not only in the way he describes characters, but in the impressionistic strokes with which he paints a scene. After she murders her husband, the woman dreams she finds the dismantled parts of her husband in a clearing of trees near the war front. "She set about to reassemble him, but before the parts could be united the dream was broken its beauty gone, and she was awake again with across the room from her the empty broken flatness of his inanimate shell, the dark incisions of his eyes floating across his face." Koelb's prose is stylized and many of his sentences beautifully contain the novel's motifs.

"The transference of power, of kind, to overthrow him, even in his failure, had not been her place until the man her husband presented it to her... and she accepted, found it not just open but demanding, an emptiness wishing and whimpering to be filled," Koelb writes. This idea is threaded throughout the novel and beautifully embodied in the transfer of power at its culmination. The ending is stunning, an echo and extension of the paradox of violence being the only intimacy that Abe can offer, of realizing one's most powerful self in the moment of relinquishing that self.

Trenton Makes is utterly original and utterly itself and absolutely deserving of readers' attention.
Profile Image for Ben.
105 reviews1 follower
September 15, 2017
To call the writing in this book beautiful would somehow not fit - but it is.
Also, as for a review or recommendation - to tell you anything is to ruin the thing.
Come for the post WWII gender fuckery, stay for the sweet sweaty tension.
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,714 reviews1,242 followers
November 24, 2020

I was biased against this novel from the outset, since I've always hated the "Trenton Makes" sign. For those unfamiliar, this is a giant sign on the Lower Trenton Bridge over the Delaware River connecting Trenton, NJ and Morrisville, PA. The sign reads
. It is visible from the Amtrak line which crosses the river just south. "The slogan was originally "The World Takes, Trenton Makes" and came from a contest sponsored by the Trenton Chamber of Commerce in 1910. S. Roy Heath, the former Heath Lumber founder and New Jersey State Senator, coined the phrase," informs our global informational bible. I do not believe this sign is accurate, as whatever Trenton makes, or made, is not simply taken from it. Surely money exchanges hands.

This is a relentlessly sordid tale, filled with sweaty greasy cheap people who kill, dismember, drink themselves into stupors and then rape or get raped. Abe Kunstler has killed her husband in 1946, then taken on his identity, working factory jobs, binding her breasts, shaving, wearing mansuits. He falls in love with an alcoholic taxi dancer who prefers spooning to sex, fortunately for Abe. Marital sex for Abe consists of fingering Inez, who apparently has never seen him naked. When Abe gets his period, he borrows tampons from Inez, then secretly replaces them. (His secret remains unknown to his family until the 70s.) When Abe has a longing for a child of his own, he gets a fellow barfly stumbling drunk, brings him home, and manually stimulates him until he can penetrate the passed out Inez. When the 70s arrive, Abe is disgusted by his hippie son who has a cleft palate, finding him not manly enough.

I can appreciate some of the artistry here ["...taking a long while before finally with a spit-wet finger he unpicked the gate of hair woven between her legs." "...in the heat even Bets' nipples were too lazy to get up from their soft beds under her tank top"] but overall found this an unpleasant tale told unpleasantly. The New York Times reviewer loved it, though.
Profile Image for Kassandra.
40 reviews
February 6, 2018
I received this eARC from Doubleday books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Tadzio Koelb’s writing style is unique. I actually had to re-read the first few pages and it took me about 20% of the way through to fully adjust to his style. I’m going to tell you all now that this book won’t be for everyone. Initially, I was struggling to get into this story. I didn’t get fully immersed until the second half of this book.

This is not a light read! It’s a quick read but this book contains many triggers (i.e domestic abuse, rape, alcoholism). Despite the heavy content, Koelb’s words are beautiful (you’ll understand what I mean if you read it). The ending was vague and it left me with more questions than answers. Overall, I enjoyed this book because of its complexity and uniqueness.
Profile Image for Deanne.
389 reviews3 followers
May 8, 2020
This is definitely literary fiction. It is not something for readers who are looking for entertainment or escape. The story presents a brutal look at all sorts of difficult themes. Every character is messed up in various degrees. This book would be excellent to dissect in a graduate school lit class, or a serious book club. It reminds me of Hemingway in topics and loathsome characters. However, the writing is much more flowy and almost pretty in spots. People have complained that the story is vague and choppy and hard to follow, but I think that is part of the artistic endeavor. The way the story is told gives the reader the same sense of unease and dissatisfaction that the characters seem to be feeling in their lives. I did not like this story. But I respect the skill and effort that clearly went into its creation.
Profile Image for Mark.
87 reviews16 followers
July 2, 2022
I took this back to the library. Some interesting ideas and imagery here and there. But I just found it to be bullshit overall. Maybe someday I'll give it another shot.
Profile Image for Teri Stich.
679 reviews
April 6, 2018
I so wanted to like this. The premise of the story held such promise. The story of a woman who took on the persona of a man in order to escape the hard troubled life she knew. Having read other books of this theme, I was quick to begin it. Unfortunately, I just couldn't appreciate the writing style, for me it did not match the story. The author just could not bring the characters to life for me. I gave it a good try. I do hope someone else reads it, I would love to hear their opinion. Perhaps they can encourage me to give it another go, but for now, it is gone.
Profile Image for Rob.
184 reviews6 followers
October 18, 2017
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 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
Off-Center Views
Profile Image for Paltia.
633 reviews86 followers
December 31, 2018
At times absorbing, while at other times the writing erected a barrier against my understanding. The author seems sure of his way yet I became lost in all that style. A dramatic and flat out wierd story. The characters have been thrown together in gross misunderstandings and violence. How far will a person go to protect their assumed identity? It only becomes stranger when the father hunts his son. Currents the wife is not even somewhat aware of begin to flow with ferocity culminating in a pathetic end. Could it have progressed any other way? Troubling tale that borders on a nightmare.
Profile Image for Joshua.
55 reviews
November 8, 2019
It read like a winning assignment in a creative writing course -- polished, smart, and original. It is lacking though. We expect the city of Trenton, as place, to provide so much more mood or context, or even color, to what feels often enough like a bare-bones story. Instead the city is a reference that stays somewhat distant. The story never seems to go as deep as it promises, and I ended up thinking I wish Koelb had taken more time with this promising outline of a story.
Profile Image for Donna Bijas.
893 reviews2 followers
April 16, 2018
2 stars. Not a fan but will say the first half of the book had a decent storyline, Woman accidentally kills abusive husband and assumes his life, life as a man after the war. That said, the second half of the story was absurd to me. Zigzagging all over the place with his job, his wife and his son (he’s still pretending he’s a man now mind you). Wanted to abandon it but at only 200 pages, I finished it. Would not recommend.
1,522 reviews47 followers
July 22, 2018
I really liked this very strange book, which it's hard to talk about without spoiling, since so much of this is a meld of technique and subject matter.... So we've got a very close third person narration which allows Koelb to call his protagonist "he" in spite of the fact that that protagonist, "Abe" is a woman. (There's something in here for gender folks, and I'd love to read something from the trans community on Abe, if it's fair to call Abe trans or not, but I feel like I don't know enough to say). This narrative closeness is effective, too, for shutting down some narrative questions that I think, if opened up, would undermine the book-- so, does Inez really not know? Well, we don't know quite what Inez thinks, especially in the story present of 1971. The same kind of narrative closeness makes a startling point about family, that son Art accepts things that would be suspicious in others because it happened in his family.

I'm not sure I totally accept some of the writing about this book that it's an exploration of the diminished authority of masculine power. I can see, in my way, why reviewers would go there to find a theme to this book, but I'm not sure Abe ever exercised power in that way, even over Inez. Instead, I don't read this book as having those kinds of thematic aims. To me it was closer to Otessa Moshfegh's _Eileen_, a disturbing deep dive into a freakish psychology.

I really liked, as a writer, how Koelb made something out of maybe three or four scenes-- there's just a lot of planning, to trick a man into impregnating Inez, or for Abe to find Art or Art to find Inez. You can prep and practice and refine and wander and it all fills pages and lets Koelb get away with really peeling back his characters without a whole lot of import happening.

I thought the ending was a little unsatisfying, too ambiguous for me.... I sort of get it that we're bringing Abe to his apotheosis, where he reaches for violence as the solution to his problem. But I think I wanted something more decisive, where Abe is forced to develop some sort of new carapace? I just think what he came up with would be more interesting than what we get here....
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Lorna.
370 reviews28 followers
July 27, 2020
Content warnings:

I want to thank Double Day books for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The first thing I should note is that this book is not for everyone and it certainly wasn't for me. I was very interested in the idea of this novel. Trenton Makes is about a woman who assumes the identity of a man to carve out her piece of the American Dream. Part one starts in the 1940s with Abe Kuntzler meeting alcoholic dime dancer Inez and setting out to win her hand. The book then transitions into 1971 where Abe has devolved and his identity is threatened.

After part one, I had to DNF this book. I was struggling with the prose as well as understanding why this story was even being told. I didn't understand why Abe went to the lengths he did. There are flashback scenes to Abe's life before as a woman where the prose becomes even more vague and I really struggled with what the story was trying to tell me in those chapters.

Overall, this book gets a 1.5 out of 5 from me due to the interesting plot. However, it falls flat in many different ways for me and made me feel unnecessarily uncomfortable.
Profile Image for Juli.
730 reviews24 followers
April 2, 2018
I would like to thank NetGalley, the publisher and the author for my advanced copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

I am giving this 2.5 stars because aside from the writing style, which I found very pleasant and interesting, I didn't get the book. I didn't get the story. What was the point of it? What did the author try to say?

We meet Art Kunstler. His life is tough. It's post-WW2 and jobs are rough, money is tight, and morale is low. Art lives with a secret, a big, big secret! Throughout the entire book, I couldn't figure out how Art really felt about that. This made it so difficult to relate to our main character. We get to know a bit about his backstory but most of the novel focuses on the present day. Well, at least most of the first half of the book. For the second half, there is a sudden shift to another main character, Art's son. Why? I have no idea. First, I thought it would give the story depth, but really, it just left me utterly confused. Honestly, I have no idea how Art's saga ends - and this is not a good open ending, it just left me unsatisfied.

All in all, this book just didn't do it for me. The premise was super intriguing but the execution was lacking. I would like to be more explicit about why but anything I could say would be a spoiler and then there would be nothing left in the book.

See my blog (spoilers possible!) here: https://ichleseblog.wordpress.com/201....
Profile Image for Brian.
1,660 reviews41 followers
April 4, 2018
After World War II, a woman kills her husband and then assumes his identity. From there, she takes his job at a factory and eventually meets a drunk dancer who she decides to partner up with. The book then flashes forward to the 70's where she is still keeping her gender a secret. This book was extremely hard to follow and had little to no character development. I started reading it without reading the description and I'm not sure whether it was because I had trouble paying attention to the plot or that it wasn't clear, but I missed the fact that the main character was a woman posing as a man. I re-read the beginning and then had an "oh" moment. The book was just very hard to get through and had a lot of characters who had little introduction and little personality other than being present in a scene.
Profile Image for Susan Kinnevy.
598 reviews1 follower
June 17, 2018
I read this book because I was born in Trenton and wanted to see what sort of literature might come of it. I was surprised by the story itself, it was unexpected and unique. The setting -- Trenton in 1946, the year I was born, and 1971 during the Vietnam War -- was so true to parts of my own experience, I kind of shivered as I read it. The protagonist was a pastiche of so many factory men, striving to create or preserve their fragile identity, damaged by war and poverty and a perverted ideal of manhood. So good...
417 reviews5 followers
October 1, 2021
This is an interesting book that had me dreaming a little about the atmosphere created by the author. I don't think it will stick with me, which is the mark of a really good book, but I found it to be a page-turner for several days.

The premise is a little far-fetched, but plausible. Don't read the jacket or the reviews too heavily if you want maximum shock factor. I'd read the jacket at the library, which is why I'd picked up the book, so I kind of knew where things were going. Still, the author does an excellent job of building up the tension and exposing the key moments in the main characters' lives, especially Abe, but also his girlfriend Inez and their son Art. These are intense scenes with a big of surrealism or out-of-body experiences for each, which is the only way they got through the horrors they faced.

It's a sad tale because each of the three is damaged, and each could have helped the other if they had communicated. But they didn't -- most of us don't -- and instead they fell into a morass of drink and drugs and anger.

Below is a plot summary. It's sort of a spoiler ...

The story opens soon after WWII with Abe Kunstler working in a factory in Trenton. He's brusque, drinks way too much, and has no friends except Jakes, the semi-literate janitor at the factory. But Abe has a history that he's hiding, and it's not the one he tells to his coworkers. They are uneasy about him, and the only let him tag alone socially for beers because they like Jakes, and Jakes likes Abe.

Abe meets Inez, who's a dime-a-dance girl at a bar that's falling down the social ladder. He brings her home, and they live together. He takes her out of a life that's going downhill pretty quickly. They get along ok, though they drink too much, and they're living not much above the poverty line. Still, for a pair of damaged souls, it's a life. That's Part 1.

Now, fast-forward 20 years to Part 1 of the story. They've had a kid together. Abe's drinking is a lot worse. The factory has closed. He's barely making any money doing deliveries for a company. Inez is working also, to keep the family from being thrown out on the street. And their teenage son is a hippie. It's 1971, and the generational divide is deep, deep, deep.

Abe has a couple of secrets that he's kept even from Inez. It's the source of his drinking and his anger. But as a man of his times, he just keeps it bottled up and ruins everything around himself. All of a sudden, he thinks his son knows his secret -- the son doesn't -- and Abe spins out of control trying to confront his son about it. And his secret is revealed.

As a reader, knowing what you know, you want to smack the characters and say, hey, you can do better for yourself and the people around you if you speak up, if you show vulnerability, etc. Inez kind of does, and Art kind of does. But Abe spoils it because he's so violent and angry. And you wish that the commendable things about Abe weren't overtaken by the bad things. But that's life sometimes.

Profile Image for Jeremy.
540 reviews4 followers
August 23, 2019
What the world takes is often what is held dear to one's self. The world is just too big and messed up not too take the good. So you make good and adapt. This making and taking is at the core of Trenton Makes by Tadzio Koelb. It's very hard to discuss and review this book without giving away major spoilers. So I will say this, pay attention to the pronouns. Koelb is not playing at duping, but at letting the main character, Abe Kunstler, live as himself, as he sees himself, and wants himself to be seen. Abe works at a factory in post-WWII Trenton, NJ. He's a small man with an impregnable countenance. He acquires a wife of sorts in Inez, a nickle-a-dance, alcoholic taxi dance hall girl. Halfway through the first section, Abe comes up with a plan and stops at nothing to see it through, in order to fulfill his perceived destiny. The second part jumps to 1971, focusing on the tense inter-generational dynamic of Abe and his son, Art, a slight boy with a harelip, terrorized by his father's alcoholism and tight familial control. Unlike his father's generation, the waging war (Vietnam) is not inducing local pride, another rift. At heart in this section is the rift between father and son, but as Koelb stylistically chose in the first section, it becomes elliptical. The fallout is known before the cause, and the action, leading to a sense of missing pertinent information to fully understand the totality of the characters. Style takes center stage, often over character and story. Koelb does connect the importance of identity, the one we feel is inherently ours versus the one that we wish to have, through Abe and Art, with Abe being an exemplar of this (and with him not being a "nice" character is interesting and telling). But what the world takes, so does Trenton Makes.
Profile Image for L.C. Rooney.
Author 1 book46 followers
September 5, 2019
I will admit that I found this little gem of a novel (206 pages) quite by accident: I was searching the web for images of my hometown of Trenton, New Jersey to get ideas for the cover of my upcoming debut novel. When someone from Trenton, New Jersey sees the words "Trenton Makes," we know the rest of the phrase: "The World Takes." These words form the neon-lit sign spanning the side of the Lower Trenton Bridge connecting the capital city to Morrisville, Pennsylvania. It refers to the late 19th and early/mid 20th centuries when Trenton was a hive of manufacturing, everything from pottery and wire rope to rubber and cars.

Of course I felt compelled to click on the image of the Trenton Makes book cover to investigate, landing on the Amazon listing. While initially intrigued by the premise of the story, it was the excerpt that totally captivated my imagination. The writing in this debut novel by Tadzio Koelb--rich and complex (and, yes, perhaps a bit unnecessarily dense in places)--positively swept me away. His intricate and stylized prose transports the reader to the times in which the story takes place (Part One, 1946-1952; Part Two, 1971) and thoroughly absorbs the reader into the protagonist's world.

Abe Kunstler is unlike any protagonist you have ever encountered, and his story unique in both genesis and execution. Beginning and ending with a death that promises new life, everything that happens in between will rivet your attention. I read it in one sitting, but indeed I need to read it again, this time slowly to savor the undercurrents, the emotions, and, most of all, the exquisite quality of the writing.
Profile Image for Cassandra MADEUP BookBlog.
424 reviews6 followers
July 24, 2018
There really isn’t an awful lot that I can say without telling you even more of the plot line that the blurb and goodreads description already do, but..

First off, this is an interesting storyline, with many many issues to be discussed, so perhaps a great book for a book club. For fun? Perhaps not.

It is quite enjoyable as far as the story goes, but I had a hard time reading it. Initially I found the style engaging, but it became hard work quickly, and i found myself not understanding what was going on and having to reread several times, part of this down to the style itself. I couldn’t get my head around what tense this book is aimed at being, it wasn’t exactly third person, but not first either.

That alone was frustrating at times, but I also found that the significant jump in time between the two halves meant i stopped engaging with the characters and the lack of resolution towards the end frustrated me immensely. For such a heavy book (figuratively as this is only relatively short) i expected more of a “questions answered” type of ending, instead I found myself wondering what had happened.

There are many issues which could be discussed about the book, such as alcoholism, gender roles, transgender, etc and the plot was quite clever and fun initially.

However.... this is not a book i would read again, and as i did not get on with the writing style, not an Author I would rush to revisit.

That being said, if you don’t mind a book that’s a bit of a challenge and gives you a lot to think about, definitely pick this up!
68 reviews
February 22, 2020
I am of two minds about my rating. On the one hand, this is written by a massively skillful writer. Koelb is awesome at setting a mood and a situation that fits the mood.

Problem is, the mood is quite a downer; gritty, grimy, desperate. Sample from page 68, which I turned to at random, "Her mother's tearful despair was a thing she never felt. She sometimes believed it was because even then she had been ugly and known it, and the ugliness protected her from pain, or rather was a pain so great in itself that all others were small by comparison."

The protagonist takes on the memory of her husband by assuming his gender. Koelb, as I said, is a masterful writer but I did think he missed some practical aspects of being female. Like, how does she hide her PMS and menstrual products? I couldn't. Or, after having read "Self-Made Man" by Norah Vincent, I wish he had addressed Vincent's main discovery, that living a lie is really hard on the psyche. Vincent felt compelled to reveal her true identity to everyone after her experiment was over.

Anyway. It is extremely well written. I felt like I was in the presence of Literature. And also, I had to stop reading about 2/3 of the way through. I couldn't stand the lack of nature, the stolid despair leading to lack of choices, and the unrelenting lack of joy. Even when I was in a three-year grip of suicidal despair, I could notice the clouds, the delicacy of trees, and the kindness of my neighbors. These are entirely lacking in "Trenton Makes" and without at least a little bit of joy, I realized I couldn't go on.
Profile Image for K.G..
16 reviews
June 9, 2019
Although it’s been about 10 years since author Tadzio Koelb received his degree from the University of East Anglia, I wasn’t surprised to learn he had an MFA in Creative Writing and was even less surprised he matriculated from such a vaunted institution. Though I hadn’t heard of UAE before Googling Koelb, every British publication I read mentioned the university without any explanation, in the same way people talk about Iowa. And when the graduates include Ian McEwan, Kashuo Ishiguro, and Naomi Alderman, you don’t quibble over whether the name recognition is merited or not. And when a novel wraps up so many literary techniques in one 200-page package as Koelb’s Trenton Makes, you know the schooling took hold.

The structure of Trenton Makes hints at a student rebelling against conventions, but Koelb can’t hide his fascinations with names, settings, and too many other literary conventions to count, betraying his years spent studying the craft. Most cleverly of all, Koelb isn’t overambitious with his debut novel. He kept it short, fulfills his thematic goals, and wraps it up well, just not so tightly you forget about it once you’ve closed the book for good.

Read the rest of my review on my blog, The Borrower's Review!
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