:: Article

In Blind Worship

By Lee Gillette.

‘I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.’

 We first meet Abe Kunstler in 1946 at a dance hall in Trenton, New Jersey. He’s ‘the new guy’ at the wire-rope factory where he’s won over ‘the big guy’, the slow-witted janitor Jacks, who is pointing out all the dime-a-dancers he’s danced with. ‘What about that one?’ Abe asks, relieved to spot a ‘petite but not boyish’ young woman with whom he wouldn’t look like ‘the little guy with his face buried in some bosom to be laughed at.’ Before introducing Abe to Inez, Jacks warns him that she likes her drink but ‘doesn’t like it when the guys get too, well…touchy. You know.’ She’s not distant or wary, she’s actually sweet; Abe nevertheless keeps his hand high on her back. At closing time he waits outside where she drunkenly stumbles into him. She wants to go to a bar. Over more drinks she boozily tells him about the guy who’d swindled her and left. ‘Do you think it’s because I like spooning more than I like the other stuff?’

He’s found his woman. Why? Because Abe’s one, too, and (s)he’s on a ruthless mission to be a man. We wouldn’t learn that until forty pages in if the dust jacket didn’t get it out of the way—a shrewd editorial decision to get right down to business, or as the book’s enigmatic second sentence reads: ‘Of course the plan had been there all along’, the plan to get a woman to head off suspicion. In other words, this book will not limit itself to tales of near exposure, wearing athletic supporters, hiding tampons, flattening breasts, leaving dabs of shave cream near an ear—all that is foundation, yes, but no skin-deep story of passing is this. The long, burrowing sentences of a formidable third-person narration flush out the tunnelled vision of a mind in thrall to a cult of masculinity. What they flush out of the reader’s mind can be equally unsettling.

Shortlisted for New York’s Center for Fiction 2018 First Novel Prize, Trenton Makes is a dark, dense novel about a character who dares do more. Author Tadzio Koelb makes it difficult to not think of Abe as a man—a man you find yourself rooting for, but for a surprisingly short time. It’s this unpredictability that sets the hook. He leaves you wrong-footed, befuddled, aghast, resentful, and ultimately full of pity—the last a sentiment he would punch you in the nose for feeling. He insists he is no victim, dictating the terms of his own destiny and that of ‘his’ progeny, whom he manages to produce by enticing nearly passed-out men to have sex with the completely passed-out Inez. (Only one such encounter is described, indelibly.) The goal is not only to produce an offspring in order to further protect himself from detection—a front of family and virility to deflect doubt and suspicion—it’s to honour the real Abe Kunstler, the husband whom our unnamed protagonist unintentionally killed and whose identity she subsequently assumed.

‘The man her husband’—the author’s Faulknerian designation for the real Kunstler—had left his factory job for the Second World War. His wife, like many women of the era, stepped into it. Her husband returns and takes it back despite being shattered by war, a drunk, a wife-beater. One night, one of the blows she’d become accustomed to taking she perceives as an ‘invitation’:

[S]he was ready to answer it with all the great power of the wire rope and the metal sheeting that made the planes. She hit him without waiting, ran a closed fist hard above his eye, and he staggered at the force, both of them taken aback by the dreadful knock of bone on bone…He put out an arm but found only the bare light hanging by its twill cord over the table so that the shadows around them began violently to duck and swing…he threw a hand at her and missed; she struck him again now with all the power of her frustrated worker’s body, relieved happily of its forced idleness and inactivity, the power she had gained and earned in his lost war…he crumpled there in the tiny kitchen and hit his head first on the table corner beneath the dizzying pendulum of circling light, then raised himself only to slip backwards to the hard edge of the sink with a resonant crack, and the blows called out his weak, thin blood…The man her husband fell to the floor and she followed him down.

In a kind of genuflection. Because she did not hate ‘the man her husband’; she admired him. In blind worship, she sinks into an idea of manhood that has the power to spin wire for the imperial web but also to impose flexibility ‘on a whole world of rules, using them as vines use the spaces between the bricks in a wall.’

If sometimes when he was drunk he would slap her, it was not with the same impotent fury as the weak ones had done…[W]ith no weakness to overcome he was free to share, and he willingly shared, since he didn’t fear her: the booze he taught her to drink and the cigarettes he taught her to smoke, the food he worked for all over Trenton, or bartered, or when necessary stole…and the firm unspeaking in which he housed his strength. Here was something not just to accept…but to want, and to have it she would do whatever was needed.

‘[S]he saw further’ than other women, ‘past nature to the part that man had built for himself in nature’s clearings.’ ‘She would be the strong one now.’

What to do is almost self-evident, and what should be macabre is a joy to read. She cuts him up so he’ll fit into the boiler, assumes his identity, claims his spot in the labour force. The ‘Not yet he’ we learn about in flashback becomes ‘he’, Abe Kunstler, wounded in the war, the ‘wound’ the ‘reason’ for the breast-cloaking bandage whose discovery by Inez calls forth the fiction of the wound’s infliction in a POW camp and the permanent disfigurement it left for no one but its victim to ever see. But it’s the bandaged reality of which ‘Not yet he’ feels truly victim, the ‘disfigurement’ that prevents living the perceived human ideal. To live it fully, Abe soon feels he must do more than be a man: he must create another, at any cost.

Tadzio Koelb, Trenton Makes (US edition/Doubleday, 2018)

‘[N]othing could be taken unless something somewhere else was also given in exchange’, thought ‘Not yet he’ while mourning over her husband’s corpse, in one allusion to the novel’s title. This particular give (or make) and take is a process of creation to which destruction is inherent. Perhaps it’s inherent to all creation; it often is to making art—tearing down, throwing out, breaking boundaries—and it certainly is to making Abe Kunstler. He himself becomes an unquestionably destructive force, undone not only by the artifice he creates but by the fallacy he believes. One effect of that fallacy is that he never sees himself as undone; where we see destruction, he sees creation. This is a different kind of Künstlerroman.

Although isolated in his extremity, he’s enabled by a culture in thrall to the cult almost as much as he is, fuelling his fallacy of what it means to be a man in a post-war America of seemingly infallible power. Infallible until Vietnam. Cue the social destruction.

For Arthur—Art—is the son born of Abe’s proxy sex with Inez, the boy to honour ‘the man her husband’, and, in Abe’s eyes, a contradiction of all that is masculine: a harelipped hippie. That’s how we meet him, when the book jumps ahead to 1971. Terrified of his ‘father’, Art hangs out with fellow hippies including Dion, whom he idolizes for his free spirit (so unlike his own), and whom he tries to help avoid the draft. Abe, meanwhile, has long since descended into alcoholism and anger at his boy’s ‘soft nothingness’ and a Trenton whose industrial, wire-drawing heyday has completely unspooled, although not before the factory floor takes two of his fingers. Abe now drives a delivery truck. His liver is on the verge of killing him. And a sudden, not unjustified yet mistaken-identity-driven resurgence of paranoia drives him to a final confrontation with his creation that will end with another ‘invitation’.

*

Twenty years ago I first encountered the slogan mounted on the Lower Trenton Bridge over the Delaware River: ‘Trenton Makes, the World Takes’. I’d no clue of its history; the rickety letters clanged of stale puffery. But I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking, ‘What the hell gets made in Trenton?’

The question had been pertinent for decades. In the novel’s—as in history’s—1971, not only Trenton is imploding: America is about to lose a war for the first time. Abe, suffering from the DTs, drives his truck through blighted, riot-ravaged neighbourhoods; between the lines looms the immediate future: the inner city’s drug-riven hell, inflation, OPEC’s embargo, and a president who, in a bid for supremacy, will dare do more: steal, cheat, lie. He’ll betray his country.

Betrayal. Where cults end; the outing of deception, itself the daring of a lie. Abe must dare his, given what all that being a man means, not only, but especially to him. This is the novel’s crux, a dual deceit, Abe daring his own lie in order to partake of a greater one. His audacity takes a dark turn almost instantly when he and Inez move in together, and he realises he wants to ‘return to the world what poverty and war had taken: the secret strength of the absent father’—the dead Abrahamic husband whom Abe sees as ‘his own true father, reassembled in himself’. Carrying Inez through the doorway he crosses a Macbethian threshold, imagining the day when ‘she would be drunker than ever’ and he ‘would set her on the bed on her knees’ and ‘ready her for the shadow’.

If it took Abe a few tries to learn how to properly order a whiskey and soda, imagine his learning curve for procuring that shadow—in 1946. It’s a hermetic, menacing, but also menaced pursuit: the constant threat he lives under distracts us from his being one; so does the necessary clumsiness of his quest. At first he comes off as an implacable naïf: he sees the big picture with supreme confidence, it’s the details that flummox him; he keeps us guessing because even he’s not sure how to go about it. Koelb seizes this opportunity to range widely, from noir to comedy and back, from conjuring with Abe’s uninformed take on homosexuality—he brawls in a gay bar after a patron rebuffs his offer to come home to his wife (‘I thought you people would do anything’)—to his bumbling bedroom struggle to manoeuvre the drunken shadow named Price toward the propped up Inez. Bumbling, that is, until Abe ‘parts the tangled hair’—a previously insidious unease announces itself. Himself aroused, he readies them both, kisses Price, humps his thigh, inserts him. It’s a tipping point of a scene whose final image the reader cannot unsee.

Price was only moving slowly, so Kunstler slid his wet finger into him from behind, and like that the three of them rocked back and forth until Price stiffened into a noise.

‘He wondered how many times they would have to try before it worked’—‘they’, ‘try’: such language would be rich if Abe was indeed the master casting his own shadow. But as Price is Abe’s proxy so Abe is the proxy of the real master; he’s blind to what he’s really doing. Which is, in part, why some of us are too.

Tadzio Koelb, Trenton Makes (UK edition/Atlantic, 2019)

‘Abe’s impregnation of Inez is not a scene you are likely ever to forget’, is how William Giraldi describes the scene in his New York Times review. Jessica Loudis in the TLS keeps her description general: ‘[Abe] lures men home to have sex with [Inez]’. Perhaps such wordings, particularly the verbs, are consciously chosen, or are exercises in spoiler prevention, but I’m dubious. At the novel’s New York launch, the (male) interviewer enthused over Koelb’s vivid rendering of the ‘sex scene’.

‘You mean the rape,’ Koelb said.

‘Yeah,’ came the arrested reply. ‘I guess you’re right.’

I would have replied no differently. It’s unsettling to realise you failed to see rape as rape. The male gaze can be blind. Women assume it, too, such is the strength of the cult. Granted, it’s impossible to forget that Abe has no penis, no matter how convincing he is as a man; his goal is to impregnate, not rape. But rape is inevitable the instant he decides he must have a son. There’s no other way for him to both get what he wants and preserve his identity: Inez will be drunked up and unknowingly raped as many times as it takes, by men made too drunk to threaten Abe’s secret; then they’ll disappear (he throws Price into a taxi, not the boiler). There’s no getting around rape and yet some of us do, stuck in the tunnel of Abe’s vision—and our own. The cult lives on; its countless proxies benefit ostensibly while oblivious to the means, or believe cruelty—the ultimate human weakness—makes them stronger—the ultimate lie. Much like Abe benefits from (the deception of) being a man and believes men can only benefit from (the imperial lie of) what it means to be a real one.

As for Abe’s digital rape of Price, I couldn’t help but see it as telescoping masculinity’s countless proxies—male, female, collective, institutional—since humanity’s dawn, from waging the forever war on women to daring the lie in Vietnam. Proxy rape, proxy war.

Which brings us back to the novel’s original proxy, ‘the man her husband’. His weak ‘fishy slap’ was not an invitation to put him out of his misery and take what remained of his strength. He just wanted to hit his wife, and in a kneejerk she, thoroughly Stockholmed but stronger now, emulated what he’d done to weakness. But the narration ensures that our protagonist’s take on him is the only one we have. That narration is reliable; the take is beguilingly true: we believe she believes what she believes, we may even believe it ourselves for a bit, until what Abe ultimately wants sinks in. The cult’s promise: immortality. ‘This is how you cheat death…This is how by the means of the girl Inez he would manufacture the future and build a house for his name.’

Unpredictability alone can’t keep us hooked to such a monster. What keeps the line taut are Koelb’s camera eye, ear for period dialogue, and a voice of simmering restraint. That restraint boils over occasionally, generating eddies of repetition, but in the main Abe’s current of interiority flows in seductive oxbows of argument and reckoning that first belie then betray his true nature as a sociopath laying waste to both sides of the river. His obsession makes violence a virtue and therefore a blind to the damage it inflicts, including the damage of ending a victim of the very masculinity he worships. Even near death, Kunstler’s mission lives and might even be achieved if Art can be invited to take ‘the action of a man.’

‘I will raise my hand to deliver that weak blow that will bring about my own end, because underneath [Art’s] long hair and flowered clothes, the stupid beads and feathers, maybe beneath that I have constructed a thing so solid that not even these distorted days of excess and confusion will take it from me.’

This second invitation, at the end of a different, lost war, forms the far abutment of the bridge Abe believes he is, from ‘the man her husband’ to his reincarnation. Accept the invitation—return the blow—and the bridge stands. Decline and it collapses. It’s up to Art.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Gillette has written for the London Review of Books and the LRB Blog, and is currently working on an essay concerning the ‘renovation’ of the world’s largest (and arguably most notorious) colonial museum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 15th, 2019.