Steven Millhauser is a contemporary American author who writes and sees through wonderfully Dickensian eyes. His stories are filled with characters whose faces and voices become incredibly distinctive within the first few pages. With “Martin Dressler,” Millhauser follows the life and dreams of an ambitious child growing into adulthood in America at the turn of the century.
We first meet Martin Dressler in the early 1890’s as a child helping his father run a small cigar store in Manhattan. At this time New York was still a city filled with pastoral spaces, undeveloped lots, and infinite possibilities for anyone with a dream and the courage to make it real. At the age of 14 Martin leaves his father’s store to go work at a fancy hotel as a bellboy. Eventually he works himself up to assistant manager and is being groomed to eventually become the manager. But Martin’s dreams are bigger and more entrepreneurial, first opening a cigar store in the hotel lobby and then a franchise of profitable upscale lunchrooms throughout the city and Brooklyn. But it is not the money that drives him, rather it is the desire to break the mold.
From this point on Martin focuses, less on making money, than on creating something completely revolutionary in a city that moves faster than any other place in the world. Along the way to prosperity and prestige he becomes involved with the Vernon family, consisting of two sisters and their widowed mother. They dine and spend their evenings together for years before Martin finally falls in love with one of the sisters. Although this love affair is far less interesting than Martin’s own professional exploits, it adds a human dimension to a person otherwise merely consumed with success and progress.
There is something so pure and idealistic about the way Martin Dressler sees the future that it seems as if he is doomed to fail. The second half of the novel runs an odd parallel to “The Fountainhead.” Millhauser has created a world where everything from good/evil, right/wrong and mediocrity/excellence is set as binary opposites. But within each of these juxtapositions exists a series of undeniable truths. Martin Dressler the man never takes the path of least resistance, he never takes the safe route, he dreams the way Americans used to dream- not merely to make money, but to make a difference in the way that people think.
“Martin Dressler” is really a modern novel dealing with an older America. Millhauser’s wonderful imagination and detailed nostalgia about a specific time and place, make the story of Martin Dressler a beautiful fairy-tale of a story.