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Review: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser
Random House, 1996. 293 pp. $17

Martin Dressler is nine years old in 1881, when he has his first business idea, to dress the window of his father’s Manhattan tobacco shop in a distinctive way. The boy works hard for the shop and has for several years; the Dresslers are dour German immigrants to whom work and thrift come naturally. Pleasure, affection, or satisfaction have no place, suspect as the harbingers of ruin.

From these humble beginnings, Martin makes his way in the New York in the 1890s, earning astonishing success, even as a teenager. Through clever anticipation of customers’ wants, constant willingness to revise his approach, and an innate grasp of what constitutes service, young Martin constructs an empire. He learns how to tap into expectations and, later, to create them.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building on Manhattan’s Park Row, which opened in 1890, was the city’s tallest at the time (undated image, but older than 1920, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Millhauser excels at presenting New York, a city under rapid expansion, so that it appears almost like a child learning to walk and talk, and from whom we anticipate great things. Everyone has an idea, it seems, as though entrepreneurs stand on every corner, awaiting their chance at the big time. Consequently, though Martin may seem larger than life, he fits right in, except that he thinks more boldly than most.

He personifies several themes, one of which involves fascination with modern technology, which promises to make daily life easier, alongside a contradictory desire to remain in the past, anchored to what people already know. Accordingly, architecture and decorative styles figure heavily, and the author details them down to the smallest brick. His people hunger for the newness and their ability to possess it, yet fear what they might have lost, leaving behind what they grew up with.

I admire Millhauser’s finely wrought depiction of these changes, which feel both exterior and personal. Martin Dressler won the Pulitzer Prize and has been rightly celebrated for its prose and descriptive marvels, making the New York of bygone years into a character. One passage, when Martin brings three friends, a mother and her two daughters, for a ride on the Elevated (the aboveground precursor of the subway), conveys this well:

With its peaked gables and its gingerbread trim, the station looked like a country cottage raised on iron columns.… Sunlight poured through the blue stained-glass windows and lay in long blue parallelograms on the floor. Outside on the roof platform they looked down at rows of striped awnings over the shop windows of Columbus Avenue, each with its patch of shade, and watched the black roofs of passing hacks. Suddenly there was a throbbing in the platform, a growing roar — people stepped back. Mrs. Vernon gripped Martin’s arm, white smoke mixed with fiery ashes streamed backward as the engine neared, and with a hiss of steam and a grinding sound like the clashing of many pairs of scissors, the train halted at the platform.

I like Millhauser’s deft, subtle touch, in which he plumbs nascent, unexpressed desires, followed often by rapid, impulsive action. You never know quite what to expect — for the first half of the novel, anyway — which keeps the pages turning.

However, the narrative depends entirely on one character, and Martin grows tiresome. In the beginning, you want him to break his restraints, venture out on his own, find his fortune. But nothing ever satisfies him, and he doesn’t know why, nor does he bother to think about it, much. That may be true to life, especially for someone who grew up with nothing but work and duty.

But past a certain point, there’s a diminishing return. As Martin grows ever grander in his visions, longing to create something so splendid, even he’ll be happy, you know what will result. You also know that in courting a particular woman — and what a bizarre courtship — he’s heading for trouble. Where the first half of the narrative feels volatile, the second half settles into predictability.

More significantly, Martin’s the only character whose inner life comes across, and success erodes his appeal, which leaves the reader nowhere to go. Our hero talks only of his business plans, get easily annoyed if anyone criticizes them, and seems to understand, or want to understand, people only in relation to himself. A narcissist, in other words, bent on greater and greater grandiosity. In keeping with that portrait, there are only so many descriptions of decorative garishness that I can take, so I wound up flipping through some of them.

Martin Dressler the novel is beautifully written and evocative, but Martin Dressler the man is hard to approach, full of much, yet empty. I think that’s the point, and it comes with no surprise.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.