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Trenton Makes
Cover of Trenton Makes
Trenton Makes
A Novel
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"A novel of bewitching ingenuity, one whose darkling, melodic mind conceives a world of ruin and awe..." —New York Times Book Review
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.
"A novel of bewitching ingenuity, one whose darkling, melodic mind conceives a world of ruin and awe..." —New York Times Book Review
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.
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Excerpts-
  • From the cover Part One
    1946–1952

    "The new guy should come, too," Jacks had said in his loud voice, flat as a hand clap, his barrel chest steeped and brimming with all his endless simplicity. Of course the plan had been there all along, but in a way it was Jacks who set the whole thing in motion, because Jacks had said Kunstler should come to the dance hall, and Kunstler had come. It was Jacks, too, who introduced Kunstler to the girl, the taxi dancer, the one called Inez Clay.

    "I danced with her," Jacks said, pointing out one girl after another as they swung by with their clients. "And her. And her, I danced with her lots."

    "That's a lot of dimes, Jacks. It's like you've danced with every girl in Trenton. No wonder you roll your own." Kunstler's little metallic rasp of a voice was hard to make out over the music, so Jacks had to bend to hear him ask, "What about that one?"

    "Oh, that girl? Yeah, I danced with her. The guys say she's got trouble. Kind of like a dipso, they said."

    Kunstler lit a cigarette and said, "Like a thing is a thing."

    "What?"

    "Like a thing is a thing. Someone like a thief is a thief. Someone like a cutup is a cutup. And somebody like a dipso is definitely a dipso. Like just is, there's no difference."

    "Yeah, well, she don't go bitching around or anything, I don't think. She just drinks a bit is all." He lowered his voice and said, "Actually the other girls sometimes say that she's kiki, because they figure maybe she don't like men on account of she doesn't like it when the guys get too, well . . . touchy. You know."

    "Oh, touchy. Sure, I know," said Kunstler, who instead didn't touch her, or at least not at first, except to shake her hand when Jacks introduced them, calling her "Miss Clay," and later to put a hand on a place high on her back when they danced. Instead he bought her drinks and gave her tickets, which she would rip, turning away to tuck half in the top of her stocking, passing the other half seemingly without looking to a ticket-taker who simply appeared and vanished so quickly again into the crowd that he was little more ever than a reaching hand and a gesture, as if the beaverboard walls with their red-white-and-blue bunting had arms. Then during the band's breaks Kunstler bought her a fresh drink every time and while she drank it they talked—about what, the others couldn't imagine, but she laughed a lot, and when she danced with other clients it seemed that she and Abe Kunstler still found each other's eyes.

    The girl was small: that's what caught Kunstler's attention. He wouldn't dance with a tall woman, wouldn't be the little guy with his face buried in some bosom to be laughed at, so the sight of her, petite but not boyish, filling her rayon dress, was a relief. He watched her smile at a factory man still in his cheap war-time woolens and then draw him to the crowded floor, let him stand too close and reach gradually down her back. He also noted the almost invisible retreat by which she baffled his hands when the song was done, no refusal but an evaporation that was also a barrier. She was watery, effortlessly variable, not to be grabbed with fingers. Their first time on the dance floor Kunstler had offered her his right hand and she laughed. He pulled it away.

    "Don't be angry," she said.

    He nodded. "Mind if we stand—" he started, and she waited and then nodded and whispered, "Away from your friends? Sure." She led him a little way across the hall.

    "Oh, fine," he said. "I won't remember that."

    "Don't worry, the names don't mean anything, it's what you do that matters. You'll get it, it's...
About the Author-
  • TADZIO KOELB is a graduate of the prestigious writing program at the University of East Anglia in the UK. He has translated Andre Gide's work, and is an active reviewer and essayist for a variety of publications that include The New York Times and The Times Literary Supplement. He teaches writing at Rutgers University, and lives in Brooklyn.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 20, 2017
    In this taut debut, Koelb takes on manhood and the rise and fall of the American Century as Trenton, N.J., evolves from a booming postwar factory town to a place full of closed factories and dope-smoking, draft-dodging hippies. The protagonist, Abe Kunstler, is a watchful, angry man whose life is predicated on keeping his secret: he is no man at all, but a woman who killed her traumatized veteran husband in a marital fight, cut her hair, and, physically built up from wartime factory work, went out into the world. For Abe, power lies in manliness, not the weak body of a disrespected female. For a while he achieves that power: he acquires the suit that makes him feel like a “real man”; a marriage of sorts with Inez, a dancehall girl with a taste for alcohol; and even a son. But the son intended as the final proof and future of Abe’s masculinity comes of age when America is riven by generational divides and mired in a senseless war. Koelb is insightful, if not always subtle, about how short the era of triumphant white American manhood was and its tendency to fight a rear-guard action that hurts men and those they love. Agent: Anna Stein, ICM Partners.

  • AudioFile Magazine Mozhan Marno proves to be the ideal choice to narrate Koelb's historical fiction about a transgender man in a mid-century working- class world. The story depicts the large and small concerns faced by Abe Kunstler as he negotiates factory work, a complicated love life, and injuries to body and mind. Marno sustains the tones and pacing that give each issue, and Kunstler's response to it, credibility. Her New Jersey accent gives Kunstler and his co-workers authenticity in dialogue, especially in scenes in which characters are drunk. Koelb's debut novel seamlessly intertwines artful language with a clear social examination, and Marno brings it alive at the mic. F.M.R.G. � AudioFile 2018, Portland, Maine
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Trenton Makes
Trenton Makes
A Novel
Tadzio Koelb
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