Published: March 20th, 2018 by Doubleday Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Rating: 4/5 Stars
When Doubleday Books reached out to me about this one, I jumped at the chance to read it. Trenton Makes is described as the story of “a woman who carves out her share of the American Dream by living as a man.” That little blurb immediately had my interest and when I started this book, I read the first half in a single sitting (although keep in mind this isn’t a very long novel — only 206 pages).
After an argument with her husband results in a fatal accident, a woman in 1940s New Jersey, who has already been made hard by factory work during the war, decides that in order to continue on she must assume her husband’s identity and continue living as a man. And so we follow her life as she becomes Abe Kunstler, a man who lives in a constant fear of being found out, moving from job to job and never allowing anyone to get too close. Finally, when the narrative really begins, he has found work again at a factory, and he decides he wants to stay there, to continue playing the part he has created down to every last detail.
This is kind of a difficult book to read. It is gritty and brutal and harsh. It made me cringe and want to set it down out of frustration at the characters, even as the writing kept me hooked. The first half is tough enough, as Abe works to create a certain kind of life for himself, but I found the second half even more difficult. Set years later, in the 1970s, Abe has spent decades living as a man with a wife and son. We’re introduced to the character of Art, Abe’s son, who knows a secret about his father and has threatened to tell. Now Abe is also an alcoholic who is even more paranoid than before, and everything he has spent years building and maintaining is unraveling around him.
This book is extremely well written. The prose is tough, not flowery, and captures the tone and the vibe perfectly, both of the industrial life of the 1940s and the helplessness of the town in the 1970s. Reading this book reminded of reading classics in school, like the work of Steinbeck. Not necessarily in that the style was the same… just something about this book feels like a classic. It feels like the kind of book one should read in an English class, to discuss both the writing and the lessons from the book. It’s complicated and sophisticated, full of passages to reread and unpack.
But I will tell you that it is hard to like it… Abe Kunstler is not a likable character. At least he wasn’t for me. Although I feel sympathy for his circumstances, and I feel impressed at his ability to work for what he wants and for his perseverance to protect himself and continue on, I never liked him as a character. He cruel and he uses people, and I felt sorry for the people caught in his scheme (even as I rooted for him to survive). This book is not happy and it is not at all sentimental. It is hard and brutal. But it is also incredibly well done and well written.
So I will recommend this one cautiously — it’s certainly not for everyone. But it is an impressive piece of literature, I think, and would definitely make for a good one to discuss and talk through in a class or a book club!