The subtitle to this Steven Millhauser book is: “The Tale of an American Dreamer” and, if nothing else, Martin Dressler was one hell of a dreamer. Martin Dressler is the story of a young boy who grew up in a room over his father’s small cigar shop, a room from which the youngest Dressler schemed and plotted ways to grow his father’s cigar business. Each early success encouraged Dressler to build on dreams ever bigger than the ones that preceded them as he moved from one restaurant, to a chain of restaurants, to small hotels, to larger and larger hotels, and finally to something that the world had never seen before, a self-contained vertical city that became his ruination.
Sadly enough, Dressler never had much of a personal life, preferring work to relationships, and he was really only close to one person before his downfall, his sister-in-law. Married to a woman whom he found to be more physically attractive, too late he found that he had made a terrible choice of a wife, a wife who eventually made sure that he could no longer work or even speak to her sister in private.
As he lost everything that he had worked so long and so hard to build, Martin Dressler came to realize that “…if in the end he had dreamed the wrong dream, the dream that others didn’t wish to enter, then that was the way of dreams, it was only to be expected, he had not desire to have dreamt otherwise.” So Martin Dressler was content with his lot and more or less enjoyed the ride.
Martin Dressler is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. But as happens with so many prize winners, I am at a loss to explain how that might have happened. Yes, the book is filled with interesting observations about American life, capitalism and why certain types find themselves at the top. And although the sentence structure is so cumbersome that it becomes tedious after a while, the writing is generally superb. The problem, for me, is that Martin Dressler does not break any new ground or even go over old grown in a way that could be considered new or worthy of such a prize.