Review: Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser

As much as I dislike Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, I’m second guessing that opinion as I flip through my notes. So many quotes are lovely and the story sounds good when summarized . . .

Martin Dressler rises through the hospitality business in the late 1800s through a combination of work ethic and happy timing. The first 250 pages are rosy and predictable as potential obstacles are overcome by his natural virtues. The only question in Martin’s life is which of two sisters he’ll marry: Caroline, beautiful and lethargic, or Emmeline, his eventual business partner. He picks Caroline, even though she’s too tired to open her eyes all the way. Drama ensues.

Sounds interesting, right? As a whole, the book functions as a fairytale, and this aspect is captured in the opening lines:

There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper’s son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune. This was toward the end of the nineteenth century, when on any streetcorner in America you might see some ordinary-looking citizen who was destined to invent a new kind of bottlecap or tin can, start a chain of five-cent stores, sell a faster and better elevator, or open a fabulous new department store with big display windows made possible by an improved process for manufacturing sheets of glass. Although Martin Dressler was a shopkeeper’s son, he too dreamed his dream, and at last he was lucky enough to do what few people even dare to imagine: he satisfied his heart’s desire. But this is a perilous privilege, which the gods watch jealously, waiting for the flaw, the little flaw, that brings everything to ruin in the end. (1-2)

Martin’s early victories are satisfying as he demonstrates ample ability and hunger for more, but they’re hollow for how easily they land at his feet. Even Martin knows things are uncommonly smooth:

As he threw himself into his new duties, which took him away from the life of the lobby but placed him close to the inner workings of the hotel, he sometimes had the sense that he was being led by friendly powers toward a destination they had marked out for him. (58-59)

The fact that his “destination” is determined sucks suspense from the story. Martin will succeed because he’s Martin, and that’s that. Even so, many many pages are devoted to his business ventures that involve increasingly higher risks, but there’s nothing to worry about until the destination, right? Ideally, characters would be developed along the way, but they fall prey to the dreaminess that infects the rest of the book.

Martin is finally dislodged from his routine by Caroline and Emmeline. He’s transfixed by Caroline’s passive nature and inaccessibility, but descriptions of her demeanor are pretty unflattering:

It sometimes seemed that Caroline wanted nothing better than to sit through life—simply sit there, without lifting a finger on her own behalf, though with her beauty it would take little more than an ever so slightly lifted finger . . . Of course there was no reasoning with her. There was no talking to her. She did what she wanted to do and that was that. (99)


It was as if her perplexing, irritating coolness, her difficulty, were a sign of her high value. (145)

It’s hard to see the appeal. Emmeline, on the other hand, is much more interesting. She almost has a personality and can speak to Martin on his level. Meanwhile, Martin can’t understand why Emmeline might be irked when he runs a a very unsentimental proposal past her:

One day at lunch Martin said to Emmeline, “Do you think Caroline would like to marry me?”
Emmeline looked at him. “That’s a strange question for you to ask me.”
“But you’re the only one I can ask.”
“There’s always Caroline, you know. Let’s not forget Caroline.”
“Oh, Caroline,” he said impatiently.
The truth was that Caroline often irked him, even as she became fixed in his mind as a white bride. (134)

That their marriage is a disaster is only surprising to Martin, though the finale is more dramatic than expected.

The final act takes a hard swerve into the fairytale aspect with the construction of a bizarre hotel with thousands of rooms, and an increasingly complicated design. For the first time, the construction details are interesting because it’s the first time that Martin has a chance at failure. At the close, Martin shows a twinge of introspection and it hit me that this is what had been missing from the book—there’s very little sense that these characters have interior lives. It’s not just that they’re flat, rigid, or incapable of change—it’s that they’re empty.

This is arguably the point of the book—the emptiness of wealth and success when there’s nothing underneath—so how can I say it’s what I like least about it? This reviewing thing is trickier than it looks.

Overall: 2.8 (out of 5.0) Not much heart to it, though the writing is creative and positively lush at times. When I don’t recommend a Pulitzer winner, I can’t help feel that I’m overlooking something obvious.

Image credit: Goodreads

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