“He felt, even as he turned over the idea of a fourth cafe in Brooklyn, a sharp little burst of restlessness, of dissatisfaction, as if he were supposed to be doing something else, something grander, higher, more difficult, more dangerous, more daring.”
Steven Millhauser’s novel Martin Dressler is the story of the rise of an entrepreneur, the son of German emigrants. The main character’s avid pursuit of the American Dream of almost limitless wealth and success unfolds in this well constructed tale that begins, significantly, in fairytale style with the sentence “there once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper’s son who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune.”
The novel opens in 1881 with a 9 year-old Martin already thinking of ways to improve sales at his father’s cigar shop with his design of cigar stand. Martin calculates exactly how much profit the sale of an extra cigar a week will yield over the course of a year, and it’s easy to see that Martin will be, in adulthood, a force to be reckoned with.
Over the years, Martin becomes a bellhop, a cigar stand concession owner, and a personal secretary to a hotel manager. He starts a lunchroom which rapidly becomes a chain of restaurants as Martin expands into various, untapped areas of New York. While Martin has limitless vision when it comes to business and profit, with women, his radar isn’t as good. His first sexual experiences, interestingly, involve a hotel, and Freud would have had a field day with this character. Martin’s sex life is divided between a quiet whorehouse and the occasional hotel guest. When he meets two sisters, he chooses the elusive Caroline as his wife, a woman given to strange illnesses, in favour of her less attractive sister, Emmeline. Martin, a man of incredible energy, nonetheless finds himself sapped by his wife’s ennui and unexplained perpetual fatigue. But Martin’s continual need for motion in the world of business leads him to pursue his unquenchable ambition while ignoring his personal life. Always restless, he masters one business and then moves onto another, always growing, always creating, and feeling as though he “couldn’t breath” in any business that won’t allow for expansion. He nurses dreams of a vast hotel:
It was to be eighteen stories high, with turrets and cupolas and a broad central tower rising another six stories: a fever dream of stone, an extravaganza in the wilderness, awaiting the advance of civilization that had already been set in motion by the announcement of the plan for a subway under the Boulevard. The Dressler, soaring into the sky like a great forest of stone, would also throw down deep roots: three underground levels and a basement, including a subterranean courtyard illuminated by electric lights twenty-four hours a day and a level of shops arranged in a labyrinthine arcade. The ground floor was to be a vast system of interconnected lobbies, ladies’ parlors, smoking rooms, reading rooms, and arcaded walkways, above which would rise more than two thousand rooms, arranged in seductive combinations and divided into suites or apartments ranging form a single room with bath to twenty rooms with six baths.
Emmeline, who, over the years becomes his companion and confidante, questions Martin’s plans for his hotel:
There’s a strangeness, Martin, like a picture of a castle in an old book.
He capitalizes on the idea that Americans want a blend of the efficient modern with the glories of the past, and as Martin gains full control of his plans, his projects become more unreal and less practical. Eventually, Martin, whose schemes become more and more fantastical, moves on to building the Grand Cosmo ….
Martin, in common with John O’Hara’s character, Joe Chapin in Ten North Frederick, leads an unexamined life. But whereas Joe has inherited wealth and is set on a lifelong path early in life, Martin is a self-made man. His ambition isn’t driven by money but by organizing and creating these businesses, and once they are successful, he seems to lose interest. The pursuit is always just that–no end goal, no satisfaction, just the endless chase. Martin passes many men along the way who are content with grasping at certain ambitions but then are happy to remain at that elected level. Not so Martin, no matter how much he gets, he knows there is always more, further horizons to conquer. And of course, to Martin, it’s never enough for his insatiable inchoate appetite.
Martin Dressler is an interesting vision of the unquenchable emptiness of the American Dream. We don’t really get inside the characters’ heads much–instead there is a distance as though we are watching a drama on stage. There’s a magical, dreamlike feel to the novel, as if the times, and Martin’s creations have a phantasmagorical element. I couldn’t help but think that Martin would have had a glorious time designing hotels for Vegas.