Sunday, 22 November 2015

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser

Short books vs long books; it’s an age old debate. Seriously – google short books vs long books and you will see at least a dozen of debates on the topic. Myself – I prefer the short books. There are too many books to read and not enough time to read them as it is. I can’t afford to spend weeks on one story. Don’t get me wrong – while I will be deterred by a book as thick as the NYC phone book, I will still read it if it sounds interesting enough, but I have never read a long book like that where I didn’t end up thinking that a few hundred pages couldn’t have been edited out. I generally find that the end of long books end up dragging – by the end of it my wrist hurts and I rush through just to get to the end.

Martin Dressler; The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser in particular got me thinking about long vs short books.  This relatively short novel avoids the traps of longer novels – we aren’t bogged down by things that don’t matter. Millhauser tells us what we need to know to further the story. It’s short and sweet. The book is the story of the eponymous Martin Dressler, the son of a cigar chop owner who dreams big and follows through with his dreams. In New York at the turn of the century, Dressler goes from bellhop in the Vanderlyn Hotel to building his own hotels before he turns 30. Along the way Dressler encounters many characters with dreams of their own – just generally not quite as bright as his. He then encounters the lovely Vernon family – Margaret and her two grown daughters; Emmeline, plain yet passionate and intelligent; and Caroline, beautiful, enigmatic, almost ethereal and not quite of this world. Like so many dumb people in this world, Dressler chooses Caroline as the object of his affection due to her beauty, over Emmeline with whom he has much in common. In fact, as Dressler gets to know the family better he realizes that Emmeline is his equal in every aspect. She is able to match him idea for idea – seeing the merit and beauty in his dreams where others think them too extravagant. And to be fair – Dressler doesn’t really ‘choose’ Caroline so much as he falls into what everyone else expects him to do. He marries because he is expected to marry – not because he has any deep desire for Caroline; Dressler is much to obsessed with his ambition to care about love.

Millhauser does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of the times; as we watch Dressler grow we watch the city grow with him. New York at the turn of the century was the place to be, something new was always happening, people were always coming up with bigger and bolder schemes, everyday there was something new to discover. It was time when I think it was a little easier to make a name for yourself. There were so many new things happening - but there was still so much room to fill. Right from t
he beginning Dressler knew that there was more out there for him than his father’s cigar shop.  When he is offered the position as bell boy in the grand Vanderlyn Hotel he is nervous because he is afraid it will restrict him, he doesn’t know quite what he wants to do yet – but he doesn’t want to limit his options. Honestly I didn’t really like Martin. He was a little socially awkward and was very singular in his need to keep doing things better and bigger. It would drive me crazy whenever Dressler would get annoyed that someone’s vision wasn’t as big as his, or they didn’t see things the same why he did. He almost couldn’t understand how someone could be satisfied with less than everything. The fact that I didn’t really like him didn’t at all impede my enjoyment of the story however; I don’t think you are supposed to like him. Dressler is that singular type of person - driven beyond everything else to accomplish what he needs to accomplish. I use the word ‘needs’ purposefully. Dressler is driven to realize his creations; to the point, at the end, where it doesn’t really matter if they are successful or not.

The story is almost set up in snippets of Martins life. Years pass where we see nothing, but then we are brought back in when something good or big is about to happen. They only place where I thought the story was lacking was towards the end – Martin is spending all of his time with Emmeline. He entices her to follow him from project to project, she is the only one who understands his visions after all, but all the time he spends with her is causing tension in his already tense marriage. Things here start to get quite interesting, but as with the rest of the novel we only get snippets of what happens. I would have loved to learn more from other characters perspectives – How Emmeline felt about being a true match for Dressler, while he preferred arm candy instead; and from Caroline about (she is a pretty fascinating character in general, that we never learn enough about) living as a notch on Martins life event belt. This was definitely a good story though- incredibly well written and such a good historical snapshot of one of my favourite times and places.

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