In Koelb’s debut novel, a woman in post-WWII Trenton, New Jersey, accidentally kills her abusive husband, then disposes of his body and takes his identity. She can do so because her husband was a smallish man, and she herself was made strong by years of factory work during the war. Living now as Abe Kunstler, he moves to another part of town and eventually gets work at another factory, as he had done during the war. Abe decides that for his ruse to be complete, he needs a wife and child. He eventually marries Inez, an alcoholic taxi dancer. In time, Abe takes steps to start a family. The narrative then jumps ahead about 25 years to 1971. Abe’s son, Art, has possibly figured out Abe’s secret. Now Abe is determined to hold together everything he has struggled so hard to create.
This book won’t be for everyone. The writing style, leaving readers uneasy and off-center, takes some getting used to. Obviously, issues of gender roles and identity come into play. Throughout the novel, the woman Abe was before had no identity of her own; Abe’s male identity completely overwrites her as a person. Also, not central to the narrative, but still looming large, is the question of consent. Abe’s world hinges on the idea that he needs a child. The manner in which that child is conceived eliminates consent on a multitude of levels and may be triggering to some readers. The shift in perspective from mostly Abe’s to mostly Art’s during the jump ahead in time is a bit jarring, given the uniqueness of the writing style. Overall, this is a well-crafted book, but one that I think will turn off many readers for various reasons. However, it would make a great book club selection because there are so many topics to discuss.