By Steven Millhauser
New York: Vintage Books, 1997
ISBN # 0-679-78127-7
293 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2010

While this is a rather light-weight novel, it was an interesting read. Martin Dressler, born in New York City in 1882 to a relatively poor owner of a small cigar store, grows up filled with talent and ambition. Todayís strongly ambitious stars in business seem motivated by making great amounts of money. Not so Martin Dressler, and author Steven Millhauser presents that view as rather typical of that turn-of-the-century dreamers.

Dressler just wants to do things that have not been done before; to amaze himself and others at what can be achieved. By an accident of circumstance, the 14 year-old becomes a bell boy at a small hotel, sort of on its way down. But Martin canít help dreaming what a hotel might really be if one didnít run from the modern, but embraced it.

He does embrace hard work, a winning personality and clear and daring vision, and slowing rises first in that lowly hotel, then on to bigger things. He keeps growing and growing, and his vision gets larger, as does that of New York City of the turn of the century.

Before long he is building shocking hotels that are more than hotels, they are sort of fantasies of the future. Fortune and fame come his way, but neither much interest him. It is the QUEST. The quest for the new, the shocking, that which others are sure will fail, but his insights into the future convince him these buildings are the future itself.

Martin is much more successful in dreaming and creating than he is in his personal life of love. He meets a family of a mother and two daughters, choose the beautiful one to be his wife when he should have chosen the more homely but true partner in spirit as his future wife.

While his personal love life remains in shambles, his business world spirals both out of control yet mainly successful.

I think Millhauser is not giving us a late 19th - early 20th century success story, nor a moral tale of the dangers of ambition over oneís own more personal life, but a bit of history of what was going on in that period, and how men like Dressler brought the 20th century into existence with its triumphs and terrible failures.

The novel isnít particularly challenging or profound, but it is a well-told tale, historically convincing of the rarified world of those who created much of the brashness and startling success and social changes in those last days of the 19th century.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett