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Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American…

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

by Steven Millhauser

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Continuing with my plan to read Pulitzer winners for fiction, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer won the coveted prize in 1997. While easy to read, I found the abundance of description a bit sluggish. Detail upon detail of shops, buildings, furnishings, clothing, weather, etc., to the exclusion of descriptions of the people themselves. Martin's building plans were clearer to the reader than his feelings.

An odd man, for sure, Dressler was clearly driven to create bigger and better. He constantly desired more, and became bored once his current exercise was successful. As a matter of fact, the more the story progressed, the more maniacal he became. At the end of the book, his temperament is very bipolar: And indeed he was tired, so tired that he could barely lift his head, though at the same time he felt intensely alert (p 288).

I am not at all sure what Millhauser intended to convey with Martin's relationships. The relationship in the beginning between Martin and his father seems very strong, only to all but disappear, being referred to less and less as Martin having dinner with them over the cigar shop. Once Martin begins to see success, he looks only forward, forgetting those who helped him get to his position, as well as various female relationships.

However, in that vein, The three Vernon women introduced about 1/2 through the book seemed to monopolize and overtake the story. Caroline was odd, manipulative, selfish, and I detected a potential leaning toward lesbianism; Emmeline was intriguing and strong in the beginning, but completely collapses and acquiesces to her sister at the end in a shockingly fast and complete manner; and, Margaret, the mother of these two, was oddly passive-aggressive. The relationships they each formed with Martin were all a bit unusual, but the behavior of Caroline was particularly confusing, bordering on unrealistic. She elicited no sympathy from me, and by the time her antics reached a climax, Martin had rubbed away all of my sympathy, as well. It was almost as if they deserved one another.

The writing toward the end of the book became a bit rushed, and hasty. Once Martin saw success in his cafeteria endeavors, he quickly progressed to hotel magnate, and seemed to burned out quickly from there. The build-up in the beginning, Martin's success, then his quick descent reminded me very much like a rollercoaster. Where I would have liked more of a bell curve, the wrap up of the story was a bit forced and left me wanting.

Overall, this is yet another Pulitzer Fiction winner which has left me disappointed.

Not recommended. ( )
  CarmenMilligan | Jan 18, 2016 |
To: Caleb Carr. This is how you write a novel that shows (deftly) how much you know about 19th-century New York.

To: Mark Helprin. This is how you write a magic-realist book about 19th-century New York and still make it cohesive and focused.

There's a lot more going on beneath the surface of this simple fable than at first appears. Slight shades of Terry Gilliam, Brian Moore (The Great Victorian Collection), and Baz Luhrmann, but set in an only slightly askew version of Gilded Age/turn of the century NYC. The themes of striving for success, the American dream, the phantasmagoria of consumer culture, and the nature of reality and illusion are still very timely. The book started out in the realm of the plausible and built to a vivid fever dream of fantasy in the final third. I will look forward to reading more of Millhauser's work. ( )
  sansmerci | Nov 24, 2015 |
Martin Dressler is a young man in Victorian era New York who comes from a cigar store background, but has the ambition and talent to rise in the world. He is truly a dreamer, and his visions cause him to build larger and more elaborate apartments/hotels. But his creations rise to the level of fantasy. His imagination overpowers his practical side, which leads to problems. The prose follows Martin's trajectory: it begins as straightforward storytelling, but as the tale proceeds it grows complex and mystical, building description upon description. This is a beautifully constructed story and truly a pleasure to read. ( )
  gbelik | Oct 2, 2014 |
This book started out promising, but was a waste. I kept waiting for a plot, but over two hundred pages and no plot and then it just stopped. Don't waste your time. ( )
  autumnturner76 | Sep 22, 2014 |
I found this a big disappointment after Edwin Mullhouse, one of my all-time favorite novels. It is missing a compelling central character, and without that, the whole book becomes little more than a compendium of Gilded Age trivia. Millhauser lavishes so much attention on the period detail and so little on plot or characterization, or even an exploration of the themes he seems to want to take up: ambition, artifice, and their conflation in the word “dream.” I think he has written only novellas and short fiction since Martin Dressler, and that’s a wise choice, since this is really a way-overextended short story. He has done fine work in that form, and I still feel he is one of the most interesting contemporary American writers I've read. But this summer I've read three Pulitzer Prize winners from the last 15 years, and I'm beginning to think there's a problem with the judges... ( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
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Steven Millhauserprimary authorall editionscalculated
Rutten, KathleenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679781277, Paperback)

Martin Dressler is a turn-of-the-century New York City entrepreneur who begins in his father's cigar store but dreams of a bigger empire. That dream shapes into a series of large hotels. At first, Dressler's seems the archetypal American success story, but he does not quite grasp the future. The Manhattan of fabled skyline is about to take shape just over the horizon, but Dressler cannot see it. So the story becomes another kind of fable, as Dressler contemplates having "dreamed the wrong dream."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:36 -0400)

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In Steven Millhauser's new novel set in turn-of-the-century New York City, we watch young entrepreneur Martin Dressler like many of his day make the ascent from hotel bellhop to builder of hotels. This mesmerizing novel brings us face to face with the ambiguity beneath the optimism of the American dream with a swiftness and intensity that are in themselves magnificently dreamlike.… (more)

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