Martin Dressler, the dreamer of the title, begins life as a hard-working helper in his father's cigar and tobacco shop. As a teenager, he gets a job as a bellhop in a hotel and rises quickly through the ranks. He saves his money and, while working at the hotel, he opens a successful cafe that soon becomes a chain of cafes. Before long he buys the hotel where he used to work, then begins building his own, ever grander and more outlandish hotels. Martin's success in business seems effortless; everything he touches turns to gold. His personal life is a different matter. Martin is tenacious in his pursuit of him business goals, but he seems unable to focus on the other side of life. He meets a pair of sisters, aimlessly falls into a marriage with the wrong sister, and then acts like he's too distracted to remember that he has a wife.
I found Martin's messy relationships more interesting than his charmed life as a hotel magnate. There were powerful moments of foreboding, when it felt like things were about to go seriously wrong, and hints of some dark and strange sexual currents flowing between Martin and the sisters. But Millhauser seems to find this stuff less interesting than I do--he would rather spend his energy describing the crazy features of Martin's latest hotel: the underground parks with full of flowing trout streams and live squirrels and chipmunks, the forest on the 27th floor where woodland cottages take the place of hotel rooms, the Moroccan bazaar on the 7th floor staffed by actors trained in the art of haggling like real merchants. All of this stuff is fine, and Millhauser's prose is a pleasure to read no matter what he's writing about, but I often found my attention wandering. I couldn't help feeling like there were rich veins in this story that Millhauser failed to mine.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book for me was the setting. The story ostensibly takes place in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is actually set in a sort of historical dreamtime. Some of Millhauser's historical details are accurate, I'm sure, but accuracy does not seem to be his goal. There is very little about Martin's story that is believable, and the same is true of the era. Millhauser isn't much concerned with representing what day-to-day life was really like; instead he gives us a dream image of New York at the turn of the century. Paul Harding's Tinkers was like this, and 'historical dreamtime' is, in fact, a phrase I have begun to use in thinking about my own book and its relationship to historical fact.
Besides Tinkers, Martin Dressler reminded me of two other books: Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, which I found completely aggravating when I read it about six months ago, and Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, which was stranger and better than either Helprin's book or Millhauser's. The connections with Helprin are obvious: the same New York City setting, the same historical era, a similar sprinkling of magical realism over the narrative. The relationship with Ondaatje is harder for me to tease out. Perhaps it is in the slightly loose connections with which both Millhauser and Ondaatje bind incidents to each other. Or else it is in the focus on cities, growth, construction--Millhauser's scenes of Martin's hotels being built are reminiscent of Ondaatje's Toronto bridge-builders.
I think that I will seek out more of Millhauser's work, despite the fact that Martin Dressler was not quite what I hoped it would be. Perhaps I'll read a collection of his short fiction, instead.
In other news: Ms. E gets home from Arkansas today, and all her summer travels will be over! Her flight lands in just under an hour, so I need to get ready to head to the airport.