Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Review: The New Men
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
What I look for in a novel is a cast of characters who are real to me, enough craft that reading is a pleasurable experience, and that immersive feeling of sinking into a good story. It's an added bonus when the narrative is one that tells me something surprising and new about a time or place. The New Men, Jon Enfield's debut novel, does all of the above.
Set mostly in Detroit, The New Men is narrated by Tony Grams (who was Antonio Gramazio of Ghilarza, Sardinia). The newly named, newly American Grams family settles in Detroit at the turn of the century, and Tony ends up with a coveted position with Ford Motor Company. His job is to help create the "New Men," Five Dollar Men who will be accepted into Ford's profit-sharing program--but only if they pass the investigation conducted by men like Tony, from Ford's Educational department.
This is a period in history that I haven't studied much. Henry Ford had radically changed manufacturing, and he offered a chance at a new kind of life for his workers. But the price paid by the workers was allowing an intrusive and paternalistic employer unbelievable access to the most personal areas of their lives.
Tony Grams is intelligent, devoted to the care of his family, responsible for the welfare of his mother and siblings. He is also flawed, both physically and morally, which makes him an interesting narrator. As a child, he hangs monkey-like from rafters or anything else he can reach, trying to straighten his spine, or at least relieve the pain. As a young man, he is excruciatingly conscious of his small size and his slightly warped physique--but this doesn't prevent him from falling for Thia Mueller, a wealthy, sad widow involved in many social causes. Always aspiring, and only sometimes ridiculous in his aspirations, Tony is a sympathetic character, despite the moral ambiguity of his actions.
The New Men spans the rise of Socialism and Communism, World War I, racial bigotry and unrest, and women's quest for the vote. It was a time of excitement and change, and a time of suppression and violence, and Enfield expertly draws the reader into the time period, while continuing to tell the personal story of Tony.
It's hard to fathom just how easily a powerful company intruded in and manipulated the lives of its workers. Tony becomes drawn into more and more unsavory aspects of this intrusion; in the end he is both guilty and redeemed.
The idea of "New Men" being manufactured like new cars, through character-molding interference from their employer seems more shocking than it really is. Somehow it fits in with the Puritan ideals of the first settlers, who envisioned a "city on a hill."
I thoroughly enjoyed The New Men for its craft, and for the insight into a time and place I never knew much about. This is the kind of stuff that isn't in your high school history book. I highly recommend The New Men for readers of historical fiction who might be ready for something a little different, and for anyone who enjoys the play of big ideas and fine writing.