Martin Dressler, the title character in Steven Millhauser’s 1997 Pulitzer-winning novel, subtitled The Tale of an American Dreamer, labors in his father’s cigar shop. We’re in late nineteenth-century, lower east side NYC, amid forces of opportunity and crushing poverty. Martin sees only the opportunity. He learns the cigar business inside and out, then dreams up ways to help the business. On his own, he takes to delivering cigars to a nearby hotel, whose doorman is a regular patron. Soon, the hotel hires him. He advances rapidly.
Before long, he’s chief secretary to the manager. Then he’s offered the position of assistant manager, a clear entree to the managership. But he chafes. Management’s thinking is retrograde. He doesn’t know what he wants, but it’s not that. He resigns and strikes out on his own.
The process continues. He’s a brilliant businessman and at a very young age has dreamed and built his way into the teeming architectural creation that is following the new subway line heading north on Manhattan Island. Along the way he marries. As seemingly unerring as his business judgment is, however, his self-insight in matters of romance is stunted. That whole world is as opaque to him as the business world is clear.
The narrative ends abruptly. If this were Fitzgerald, for example, we’d get an extensive exploration of Dressler’s psychology and a detailed examination of his life path. But that’s not Millhauser’s point. Dressler is a dreamer on the scale of Disney and Barnum. If there’ s a sucker born every minute, there’s a dreamer born every thirty seconds. Some of them remain stuck on the ground like Ralph Cramden. Some of them soar. Millhauser intends, I think, to show us what it’s like to dream and dare. It’s a high-trapeze world. Full of flight and danger. Enter at your own risk, and attach yourself to the dreamer at your own risk as well.