samedi 19 juillet 2014

The New Men by Jon Enfield

“In Sociological, we make men.”

So says Tony Grams, an Italian immigrant to America at the start of the twentieth century who joins the Ford Motor Company as an investigator, charged with looking into the life, standards, morals and family of the men who work for Henry Ford. In return for living a sober, dedicated life, the men who work on the Model T are offered the chance to double their wages... but only if the investigators of Sociological sign off on it. But as a worldwide war, racial tension and the rise of labor trouble begin to put pressure on everyone associated with Ford’s company, Tony begins a love affair that may bring his own life crashing down around him...

The New Men is one of those books that if it had not been for browsing through Netgalley would never even have appeared on my radar. When I saw it in the History section, though, I was initially drawn to the cover, a stylish blue and black concoction that seems to have come out of a Prohibition-era gangster flick. The blurb disabused me of that notion, but the idea of a historical novel centred around turn of the century America and the rise of the Ford Motor Company still caught my fancy. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, so I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

The New Men is a well realised historical novel set in Detroit, which affords not only a glimpse of the strange new world that has arisen thanks to Ford’s revolutionary practices, but also gives an interesting look into the rise of our world. Through the eyes of Tony Grams, we learn about the Sociological program, Ford’s idea of sharing his profits with his workers, but only if they can pass a strenuous series of probing interviews and investigations into their lives. Whether it be how they spend their money, who their family is or what their moral standing is in the community, all of these elements are raked over and studied by the men of Sociological, men of which Tony Grams becomes a part.

Throughout the book, an underlying current of racism is prevalent, though not necessarily against men of a different skin colour. Each investigator is charged with looking into the lives of his fellow countrymen – so for example Tony is assigned to work with other ‘wops’, since his employers believe that he will be best able to deal with them and find ways of slipping them up. That racial tension becomes obvious in Tony’s encounters with two of his colleagues - Merry, on one side, who takes Tony under his wing, and Smythe on the other who seems to have developed a hatred for Tony based solely on the fact that he is from Italy.

This creates a very uncomfortable atmosphere throughout the novel – Tony is constantly under scrutiny himself and the pressure he feels drips from the pages. I would not suggest reading this if you’re in a bad mood or feeling a little down: the feeling of opression that reigns will only serve to push you even further! If read with the right frame of mind, though, the book turns into a tense thriller of a novel, as Tony becomes involved with corporate espionage and the fight for and against socialist influence in the Ford company.

Through Tony’s encounters with Thia, a divorcee he quickly falls in love with, we also get a glimpse into the way society’s mores are changing in this new world. The relationship forms the core of Tony’s story, as he falls in and out of bed with her and becomes more and more embroiled in her life. When Tony begins to put himself on the line for her and her family, things become even more tense as the novel builds towards a relatively dark ending.

The New Men is extremely well written, providing an impressive picture of the world at the time. However, it is also quite dry, with a main character it is often difficult to become attached to. Although we follow Tony through all of his ups and downs, I never found myself rooting for him as a hero, and he often seemed to endure and suffer through situations rather than affecting the world around him. Many of his choices are difficult to understand and relate to, so it may be difficult for some people to become invested in the story.

However, The New Men is a book that will stay with me. The themes explored are universal and the work put into creating this turn of the century world is impressive. The writing flows nicely and kept me engaged where the main character did not. It is not without its flaws, and yet it is a book I have found myself thinking about more and more ever since I closed the last page. Overall, I gave The New Men 3 Model-T’s out of 5.

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