“Martin got up and brushed off the seat of his pants with his hat. He put his hat on his head and started back toward the path. For when you woke from a long dream, into the new morning, then try as you might you couldn’t not hear, beyond your door, the sounds of the new day, the drawer opening in your father’s bureau, the bang of a pot, you couldn’t not see, through your trembling lashes, the stripe of light on the bedroom wall. Boys shouted in the park, on a sunny tree-root he saw a cigar band, red and gold. One of these days he might find something to do in a cigar store, after all he still knew his tobacco, you never forgot a thing like that. But not just yet. Boats moved on the river, somewhere a car horn sounded, on the path a piece of broken glass glowed in a patch of sun as if at any second it would burst into flame. Everything stood out sharply: the red stem of a green leaf, horse clops and the distant clatter of a pneumatic drill, a smell of riverwater and asphalt. Martin felt hungry: chops and beer in a little he remembered on Columbus Avenue. But not yet. For the time being he would just walk along, keeping a little out of the way of things, admiring the view. It was a warm day. He was in no hurry.”
Joshua and I were both absolutely mesmerized by the epic, grandiose, and sprawling Travels of Jaimie McPheeters—the tale of a boy and his father’s dreams of fortune in the hills of San Francisco that send them on a perilous journey across the country. Even a week after finishing it, I am still reeling from the absolutely perfect ending Taylor provided for the novel; still left inspired by the spirit of hope.
In light of McPheeters, whereas Joshua decided to pursue the theme of Native Americans and finished Laughing Boy, I decided to pursue the theme of the American Dream and read Steven Millhauser’s 1997 Pulitzer-winner, Martin Dressler: the Tale of an American Dreamer.
I sincerely wish this book would have left me half as inspired as The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters did.
However, I am now wondering if that was, after all, Millhauser’s point…
I really struggled all the way through this novel. Even though it was only 300 pages, it took me the better part of a week to trudge through it. It wasn’t that the story wasn’t interesting—it was; it wasn’t that Millhauser isn’t a great writer—he is; it wasn’t even that it was difficult reading—it wasn’t. I have only two complaints about the novel, but these two details nearly entirely ruined the entire novel for me: 1) it was under-written, and 2) the main character was, for the most part, one-dimensional.
Now, before I get into unpacking these complaints, I feel like I should probably explain the basic premise of the novel a little bit: Martin Dressler, the titled character, starts off the novel as a teenager working as an assistant in his German immigrant father’s cigar shop in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. By the end of the novel, Dressler becomes a successful entrepreneur and businessman by working hard and staying dedicated to his dreams and belief that anything can be better, grander, more magnificent. He works his way up in the business world by becoming a bellboy at a New York hotel; then running his own cigar shop in the hotel’s lobby; then becoming a supervisor; then a managerial assistant; then a manager; then opening his own chain of local restaurants; then building and owning a hotel; then building and owning a bigger, better hotel. At the novel’s end, his illusory dreams of grandeur finally overshadow him and, when his third hotel—a hotel that was built to match the magnificence of the entire world—goes belly-up, he is left penniless and alone.
A classic rags to riches to rags tale.
Now, all of this should have provided for an incredibly interesting and entertaining story; however, to address my first complaint, Millhauser vastly under-wrote the story. The majority of the novel is written so matter-of-factly, that my summary provided above could almost get me sued for plagiarism. Of course, this is an exaggeration of the matter at hand, but I really don’t believe it’s too much of an exaggeration. While I have to praise Millhauser for his meticulous attention to detail and very elaborate imagery, particularly when describing Dressler’s businesses and the landscape of Old New York, I also have to fault him for not providing a lot of, what I feel is, vital information for the reader.
For one thing, Millhauser doesn’t tell the reader much about the daily goings on of Martin Dressler nor of the businesses he owns. There are wide gaps in time in a matter of a few sentences that are nothing short of jarring—gaps wide enough to drive buses through, to abuse an old cliche. Here, for example, is how Chapter 15 begins: “On the first of September Martin and Walter Dundee took over the lease of a restaurant on Columbus Avenue near the corner of Eighty-fourth Street, between a greengrocer’s shop and a bakery. By mid-October the new lunchroom was ready for business.” Seriously? Almost a full two months of business planning, building, decorating, and characters’ personal growth passes in a matter of two sentences. I didn’t even paraphrase—I directly quoted from this novel a month and a half’s worth of activity and I didn’t even need to block-quote it. In disbelief, I read this excerpt aloud to my coworker, Kelly, who wrinkled her nose and retorted, “But, a lot can happen in two months!” I nodded in agreement and replied, “But not in two sentences. Apparently.”
Three quarters of the novel is written this way too. In one portion, a full two years passes without mention from the author. In fact, if memory serves correctly, Millhauser may have even wrote, “Two years later…” or something to that effect. However, Millhauser will ramble on and on for (sometimes) pages about things as frivolous as the decorations or architecture of one of Dressler’s many businesses with little to no mention of Dressler himself.
And now I’m going to segues to my next complaint.
Martin Dressler is almost entirely one-dimensional. In only 300 pages, this novel covers almost 25 years of Martin Dressler’s life. In Ulysses, it took James Joyce about three times that to write about one day! And during this time, Millhauser puts Dressler into some life-altering situations; like becoming a successful businessman, a husband, a playboy, an adulterer, and, arguably, a widower. However, in this novel’s 28 chapters, only two make any mention at all of Dressler’s psychological or emotional condition. And even in those two chapters, Dressler’s character is only developed for a grand total of about ten pages. For the rest of the novel, Dressler is written as, for all intents and purposes, a robot—just an emotionless, thoughtless machine that builds and builds and builds and builds.
Millhauser does a far better job of detailing the personalities of buildings than he does that of his eponymous protagonist!
However, now that I have finished the novel and let the conclusion settle in for a couple hours, I am beginning to believe this was intentional on Millhauser’s part.
In the final few pages, Martin Dressler suddenly comes to life. This revival comes only after his grandest scheme, The Grand Cosmo Hotel, is panned by critics and proves itself to be a commercial and financial disaster. I found it interesting that after Dressler’s “American dream” withered and dies, Millhauser suddenly brought Dressler to life. Dressler suddenly became a human being with thoughts and emotions—incredibly complex thoughts and emotions too. I was all too relieved to finally see that come about, albeit 287 pages tardy. But that revival was a perfect ending to the novel. I have to give Millhauser credit for that, at least.
But the fact that Dressler suddenly put on flesh after becoming a failure only spits in the face of the American dream. And I believe that was what Millhauser was driving toward throughout the course of the novel.
Everything—business, media, professional sports, society at large, and even history textbooks—preaches that the so-called “American dream” brings happiness and contentment. All Americans are born and live their entire lives with the words “Life, love, and the pursuit of happiness” thrown at them from every imaginable outlet. We are taught believe that with a lot of hard work and dedication, anybody can achieve their personal “American dreams.” And so we live our lives much like Martin Dressler: robots slaving away for our entire lives so we can have the house, the 2.5 kids, the dog, the white picket fence, the Prius in the driveway, the abundance of money in the savings account. Rather than human beings with thoughts and emotions and feelings, we metamorphose into worker bees, using all of resources for the betterment of our personal hives.
But what happens when our dreams die? What happens when our illusions of grandeur vanish?
In the case of Martin Dressler, it brings contentment.
I think the message we are to take from this novel is that the American dream pales in comparison to the dream and the beauty of simply enjoying our lives. Why waste our lives as robots, working and working and working our ways to some mythical state of euphoria where our lives are completely perfect and shiny and “as they should be” when we could make the most of our lives now, no matter what Fortuna (to borrow a phrase from another Pulitzer) throws our way?
“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.”