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New book deals with the complexities of the American dream

By Kevin Dicus
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
September 28, 1999

"Martin Dressler, The Tale of an American Dreamer" could very well have been titled "The Story of the American Dream," as the reader takes the familiar rags-to-riches journey with our protagonist Martin.

It's a theme that has been done ad infinitum, so the question remains whether anything fresh can come out of this progression. Author Steven Millhauser demonstrates that it can.

In the late 19th century, a young New York City was about to begin its adolescent growth spurt - a time which offered many opportunities for those speculative enough to notice.

Here, we first find Martin Dressler, a young boy and cigar salesman at a small store in a hotel lobby. Not content with simple peddling, his talent for changing and improving the business at hand quickly becomes apparent. When the cigar shop gradually becomes more profitable under his tutelage, he is promoted to higher and higher positions in the hotel.

Martin Dressler is an icon of the American dream, with a Midas touch in every business venture. The reader follows this visionary, being present as he goes out on his own, opening one restaurant, and another and another.

The hardships of opening a new business are never really a consideration as his success is as much a fact of life as the skyscrapers popping up around him. Not content with such monotonous restaurant duties, he once again turns to the hotel business, a self-sufficient world that fascinated him with its complexity.

Now a successful businessman, however, this time he will build his own.

"Martin Dressler," (Vintage, $12), is a story as much about these hotels as it is about Martin. One hotel only fuels his desire for another, each becoming more fantastic and alive.

With underground shops, salons, even an indoor park with a starlit roof, these buildings become increasingly self-sufficient, receding from the world around them. Martin, so closely connected to his creations, parallels this withdrawal, losing touch with all parts of his life outside of the business.

Millhauser carefully and effectively portrays Martin, not by telling us too much, but as an objective observer who shows us the results of his obsession. Inevitably he must choose between his own life and the hotels with which he has such a close and intimate relationship.

He knows them more than he knows his wife, his surroundings and even himself, and the search for something outside of the hotels is a wonderful, fresh tale.

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