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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
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. -Martin Dressler
Steve Millhauser, in both the subtitle of this book and the opening lines quoted above, notifies the reader that the story of Martin Dressler is the stuff of myth, and an intensely American myth at that. In the New York City of the 1890s, Martin rises from humble beginnings in his father's cigar store to become the City's greatest hotelier. With each new wildly successful venture, Martin's dreams grow in scope. Until he arrives at his final creation, the Grand Cosmo, with subterranean levels and hidden rooms. It houses impossibilities like trout streams and geysers, boardwalks and bazaars :
[T]he Grand Cosmo was not a tourist attraction or a hotel for transients, but a world within the world, rivaling the world; and whoever entered its walls had no further need of that other world.
But when it starts to fail, Martin wonders if he is at last a victim of hubris :
For surely the Grand Cosmo was an act of disobedience. Or he was being punished for something deeper than crime, for a desire, a forbidden desire, the desire to create the world ?
Indeed, this time Martin has gone too far and not all the genius of his creation, nor the power of his advertisements and promotions can save the Grand Cosmo from failure. But as the story ends and he looks back on his life he is relatively content :
For he had done as he liked, he had gone his own way, built his castle in the air. And 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 no desire to have dreamt otherwise.
Besides the magic tinged prose, something like a cross between E. L Doctorow and Mark Helprin, what gives the book its great power is this essential vision. Of course Martin has dared too much and has left his patrons behind, but there's a strong sense throughout, even as he's failing, that such extravagant dreamers are central to American innovation, even central to human progress. For what may have started out as a comment on the all-consuming nature of capitalism and of the American Dream, ends up partaking of the Fall of Man and dealing with the mad ambitions that drive the species. Martin's dreams may ultimately come a cropper, but how much worse never to have dreamed ? This is an ambitious attempt at epic mythmaking which succeeds brilliantly.
GRADE : A+
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2000
Steven Millhauser's "Martin Dressler" may not be worthy of the hype surrounding its Pulitzer Prize winning status but it's gotten more flak than it deserves. As a novel, it's strangely one dimensional and therefore disappointing, dull even. There isn't much of a storyline to speak of - Martin simply takes on successively bigger projects until he finally overeaches himself - and the characters (including Martin) are all bloodless, cardboard-like stick characters, sleepwalking (ironically, like Caroline) through their parts. Sure, the attention paid to periodic detail is meticulous and impressive but unless you're an afficionado of late 20th century artifacts, chances are that you'll find most of it rather tedious. That's not to say Millhauser's scene setting techniques isn't beautifully executed. It is - his descriptive prose is vivid and flawless but...indulgent. There were moments when I thought the plot was about to take off for some place leftfield but sadly, such promises were never fulfilled. Even the one heart stopping episode near the end of the novel wasn't exploited for its full dramatic potential. Martin's relationship with the Vernon women could have been fascinating had it been allowed to fuel the plot, but it remained underwritten and undeveloped. There's also an eerie feeling about the nature and relationship between the two Vernon sisters that was left unexplored. However, the weaknesses we perceive in "Martin Dressler" as a novel quickly dissolve when cast in the fable genre. Fables aren't after all about real life people but about morality and ideas. Stylistically, there are tell tale signs that suggest this treatment. For instance, Millhauser's distant and omniscient perspective of his characters - Martin's self centredness, his casual lusting over the hotel maid Maria, and his weekly visits to the whores is narrated in a tone that's entirely devoid of moral judgement. The perfectly still, never changing and repetitive image of the langourous Caroline "with her hair pulled tightly back" too has a fairy tale like and slightly spooky quality about it. Readers of "Martin Dressler" are advised to approach it as a fable to avoid disappointment. Despite its weaknesses, there were moments in there which I truly enjoyed. My verdict ? Not the masterpiece to write home about. Neither is it the dud it is made out to be.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Martin Dressler is Prospero, Horatio Alger, Jay Gatsby, William Randolph Hearst, William Paley, Richard Cory, Donald Trump, Icarus, and most prominently, he is everyman and nobody. As noted by the more astute observers on these pages, Millhauser has created a fable here, a myth, a romance about human limitations and possibilities. The readers who attack the book for lack of depth, or characterization, or plot, have missed the mark, most likely because they are not well-grounded in Millhauser's mythic sources, and can't recognize a carefully-construed allegory.
This novel is as textually rich as a novel can be, but one must dig a little deeper, as Martin digs deeper into the earth in each successive structure he creates. It is also a novel of psychology, as Martin also digs deeper and deeper into his subconscious mind as the novel progresses. This is a multi-tiered work, operating on so many levels as to leave one dazzled at the sheer scope of the enterprise. Such works are easily dismissed by the masses, which is why it is surprising that the Pulitzer committee, so often gravitating to the successful and the obvious, definitely got one right in this instance.
The structure of the novel parallels the themes and "plot" of Millhauser's story. In the first few chapters we find ourselves inhabiting a rather mundane, prosaic, grounded reality, as Martin, the son of a cigar-store owner (as was William Paley), is presented as an industrious, intelligent young man who is liked by everyone he encounters. He is, in these early stages, marked more by his efficiency than his imagination. As the novel progresses, we find ourselves venturing further and further from the ordinary and the possible, into the realm of the extraordinary and then the impossible. The move is from terra-firma to terra incognita, from reality as we understand it to the realm of fantasy and magical-realism. It is also as if Martin's mind deteriorates (transmutates?) from sanity to insanity as he descends (or is it ascends?) into his dreamscape.
There is also an element of Greek fatalism at work here, as Martin is led along in his voyage of discovery by powers greater than himself: "...again he had the old dream-sense that friendly powers were leading him along, powers sympathetic to his deepest desires." Whether or not the gods at work here are truly benign is one of the issues that are not thoroughly resolved in the course of the book, just as they never were in Greek tragedy. Those desiring neat resolutions, should in fact, stick to more mundane, uni-dimensional novels.
Martin's relationship with his wife, Caroline, is also the subject of much criticism at this site. Millhauser is enigmatic on this score as well. He makes obvious her position as the sleeping beauty alone in her tower, whom the prince (Martin) cannot awaken. Yet the mythic elements go deeper than that. The Vernon women also connote the three godesses (Hera, Athena and Aphrodite) at the judgement of Paris, with Martin obviously representing Paris. Martin's/Paris' selection of Aphrodite sets in motion the final catastrophe.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Martin's character is his invisibility (though one reviewer did mention Ellison in passing). Martin starts out as substantive and real, but is transformed further and further until at last he, like his dream, "was left behind to fade slowly into the blue-gray mist of dawn..." In the final chapter he is described as feeling "light, transparent," yet he has actually become transparent long before this. Martin is a ghost haunting the various regions of turn-of-the-century New York. His erotic impulses involve approaching women from behind, so that no faces are involved. It may also be noted that Millhauser never really shows us what Martin looks like, except for a passing remark about clean-shaven cheeks or a slightly bushy mustache. This is an obvious choice on the author's part as he is highly descriptive about many other characters.
For those of you who have dismissed this book for its lack of substance or coherence, it may be suggested that you have indeed missed the boat on this one. This is a novel of rich texture and meaning that may require more than a cursory reading if you are to discover its truths and its ultimate "message." Read it again in the context of myth and possibly even as a companion piece to a work such as C.S. Lewis' <Till We Have Faces> to fathom just how deep this novel is. My only slight criticism is that in the final chapters Millhauser descends to spelling out the allegory for those who hadn't gotten it up that point. Great artists leave that up to the reader/spectator. If not for that slight flaw, this novel would have stood in the front ranks of recent storytelling.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 1998
I was very diappointed in reading the other readers' reviews of this book. I think many of the readers simply read for pleasure, with no desire to come away from a book enriched by an author's ideas and commentaries. I happen to believe that Martin Dressler has a wonderful storyline, but even if one does not like the plot, he should try to appreciate the book for what it is: a work of literature, not a popular romance novel or thriller. One aspect of the book that other readers have continually faulted is the fact that Martin's dreams become more and more outrageous as the novel continues. If one considers Martin's fantastic dreams to be a fault, he has obviously missed the point of this fantastic novel. Martin Dressler shows its readers how dreams can be misplaced, and how dreams can be totally inappropriate, although they seem to be fabulous to the dreamer. Martin had a need to build the perfect world, and from Martin we can learn that the idiosyncracies of life are the very essence of life itself; without imperfections, life becomes dull no matter what the scale.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2000
In Martin Dressler, Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser has created a book that deftly explores the fine line between dreaming and madness. This is the story of a cigar maker's son who grows to realize his dream: that of becoming a master builder of ever more extravagant hotels in late nineteenth-century Manhattan. In its combination of the real and the fabulous, Martin Dressler explores the dark side inherent in the entrepreneurial spirit of America.
Reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Martin Dressler is written in an old-fashioned narration, and, in keeping with the era in which the story is set, it is told to us by a storyteller rather than being dramatized in scenes and dialogue. Although this may sound (and be) boring for some readers, it is the perfect choice for Martin Dressler and gives the book an air of nostalgia and mystery, much like an old-and-faded photograph from some halcyon bygone day.
Martin Dressler, himself, is an Hortatio Alger-like figure, a virtuous young man who becomes obsessed with art and architecture. In telling the story of Martin Dressler, Millhauser paints a vivid portrait, unique in American life: that moment in time when dreamers and visionaries were allowed to blossom and reshape a city's skyline with buildings that would take the public's breath away.
It is when Martin embarks on his most ambitious project, the building of a hotel called the Grand Cosmos, that this richly evocative book becomes its most intriguing and remarkable. The Grand Cosmos is no ordinary hotel; it is a world unto itself, embodying all the joy and the tragedy that made up turn-of-the-century New York City. Even as Martin realizes his dreams, he loses them as well, something he seems to know, for "even as his new building rose story by story it was already vanishing, the trajectory of the wrecker's ball had been set in motion as the blade of the first bulldozer bit into the earth."
This is a quiet, meditative book but one that is densely descriptive and filled to the brim with rich imagery. Millhauser's prose is, as always, vivid and polished to sheer perfection and is perfectly in keeping with the tone of his story.
This is a beautiful book, certainly worthy of the Pulitzer Prize and more. In it, Millhauser paints a portrait of an ambitious man who simply had the misfortune to "dream the wrong dream," and, on a larger scale he gives us a gorgeous metaphor for the creative spirit that resides inside the soul of every human being.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
A delightful novel about a visionary set in a time when capitalism was at its best. The Story is set in the late nineteenth century in New York City, Martin Dressler is the son of a humble, hard-working cigar shop owner. He assists his father in the daily routine until he is offered a job in a local hotel as a bellboy. Over the years, he advances until he saves enough money to open a restaurant. It is successful and he continues to open more and more with the same formula. Eventually, he returns to his former workplace which has fallen into decay and is about to go bankrupt. He buys it and returns it to its former glory... and this is where the novel gets interesting... Martin has a vision of building a new kind of hotel that is completely unlike any other.... And this is where the novel comes alive. It concludes, some would say, tragically, but that depends largely on your view of what the definition of success is... or isn't. I loved this book for two reasons. First, it is just plain good writing. Second, it tells the story of the American Dream, but more than that... of what it is to be an American Dreamer. It captures the essence of what it means to live with a vision that nobody else can understand and how a visionary will do anything necessary to realize their vision. My kind of stuff.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2001
In his book "Experience", Martin Amis said that - he thought - there were two kinds of writers in the world. There were the writers who swooped (endlessly redrafting the same chunk of text until it was right, not moving on until the foundations were laid correctly), and the writers who bashed (knocking out one draft, improving it, improving it, improving it). The distinction went further: there were storytellers and there were stylists. The stylists are the artists, the people for whom the work is a text to be analysed and studied. The storytellers are journeymen, in it for the money. That is the quiet subtext (at least in my own reading of it).
Reason I mention it here, though, is that "Martin Dressler" is a stylised story (and Steven Milhauser, by implication, is a stylish storyteller - or a teller of stylish tales). Storytelling (and having a story told you), despite what others may profess, is actually enormously satisfying and those that do it well (I'm thinking of John Irving and T Coraghessan Boyle, amongst others) give their readers the satisfaction of a good meal.
To begin. They say that jazz was the first truly American art form. I disagree. There is an artform of American origin predating jazz. That artform is the rags-to-riches story. Or rather, the rags-to-riches-to-rags story. The great rise and fall. The pattern of the American Dream. The focus of this particular rise and fall (you may be less than surprised to learn) is Martin Dressler, the American Dreamer of the title. On the surface you get the story of a butcher's boy who grows up to be a kind of hotel magnate. In essence, boiled down for soup stock until only the bleached bones remain at the bottom of the pan, that's what you get: a butcher's boy with an obsession for, and fascination with, the hypodermic New York skyline. Martin begins working for a hotel. He starts up a string of profitable coffee houses. He collaborates with a German architect on a series of ever-more elaborate hotels (worlds-within-worlds, hotels that stop you having to step outside the front door in the search for magnificence, hotels that are a phantasmagoria of magnificent sites).
Which in itself would make for a terrific read. But. But but but but but but but. The initial miasma of a world bidding adieu to horse drawn carriages and hello to grumpy automobiles, you glimpse through a kind of opiate fog. From the offing, there is something indeterminate here. You get the impression that the central point - the meaning - is hovering just out of sight. There is something lacking at the centre of Martin Dressler (both character and novel), and also something forced (the whole myth thing feels contrived - a square peg hammered through a round hole). The gap at the centre of the character is the story of the novel. He does not know what it is. He is looking for it. He does not find it. As such, the novel is a kind of architectural "Heart of Darkness". The gap at the centre of the character is the gap at the centre of the novel.
There is stark ambivalence here. You can lay this, in part, at the door of Martin Dressler himself. You get the impression that Martin Dressler imagines himself to be David Copperfield. The novel has a Dickensian feel for detail. At the same time, though, the mawkish sentimentality of some early Dickens (I'm thinking of, say, "Oliver Twist" or "The Old Curiousity Shop") is married to the dark, fog-bound coolness of later Dickens (specifically, "Great Expectations"). Martin Dressler is David Copperfield by way of "Great Expectations"' Pip. Martin Dressler, you see, frequents prostitutes and cheats on his cold, silent wife (herself an almost mirror image of "Great Expectations"' Estella) on their wedding night. There is warmth here - the warmth of Dressler's hopes and ambitions - but the warmth quickly cools. The book reads like a story left out in the sun, with a brittle dryness at each page edge getting between you and it. The lack at the centre of Martin - the searching restlessness that leads him from one exotic bauble to another - is also at the heart of what you read, leaving you looking for a kind of satisfaction that does not exist within these pages.
The warmth of the sun rising over a new city shines brightly through the opening chapters. However, the sun shines over a city so filled with tall buildings that whole streets spend each day in shadow. You know the sun is there, overhead. It is just that the light cannot get through. As such, the novel reads, finally, like the passage of a suicide (not a rise and fall, then, more of an elaborate swandive): from the sundrenched top floor of a grand hotel all the way down to the shadowy pavement however many floors below, from the brightest of white lights through to the depravity of shadow.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 1999
This is a fascinating tale of American success and excess. Martin's rise is exquisitely drawn--it is a classic American tale. I found myself rooting for him almost in the same way as the Vernons in the book did. That so many of us can so readily identify with such a rags-to-riches story says alot about America. Of course, as his vision grows bolder and his means to realize that vision ever larger, Dressler oversteps. Eventually, his utter confidence in his vision, and its root shallowness, betrays him.
Reading the reviews here makes me question the utility of on-line reviews. Some of the negative reviews at this site are brief and dismissive--they don't suggest a reader that's read the same book I have! If this book interests you, don't be deterred by those who just slam it with one or two lines of contempt. But be prepared for a book that will enchant you with its wonderful evocation of turn-of-the-century New York and disturb you with the utter poverty of spirit of the title character.
Oh, and I found the "enigmatic" ending was ultimately quite satisfying, even uplifting.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2005
I'm not sure exactly what the Pulitzer Prize people saw in this one that made it a classic. This starts out as a Horatio Alger story of Martin Dressler, who advances quickly from cigar maker's son to trusted employee at a hotel and then begins to dream big dreams of owning hotels. His march forward parallels the growth of New York City. Anyone's who been to Manhattan can grow from seeing how men like Dressler profited from and stimulated upper Manhattan's transformation from suburbia to one of the densest popultaion areas in the world. Dressler's relationship with a mother and her two daughters is also central to the plot. Romance, friendship, and business are all tied up in his relationship to this family and the juxtaposition between his amazing prosperity as a businessman and his dreaminess with the women in his life may be what convinced some readers that this fable is a profound book.

I was not blown away by the writing style. I felt the author enjoys listing items, many of which are beautiful, but were tough for me to visualize. Martin's visions of hotels get stretched beyond the point of credibility as well. This bugged me because I felt what could have been a powerful historical novel or a complex exploration on the tensions between family and total dedication to one's professional mission was held secondary to a desire to make this an allegorical novel on America's romance with buildings and novelty.

This was an okay novel that ironically, may be a decent novel for a high school student looking for something accessibly yet meaningful. I enjoyed reading it, but I was expecting more from this than I got out of it. It's a relatively quick read at least so others may find this worth the time and see something that I may be missing.

Scratching my head...

3 stars

--SD
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2010
The first time I picked this up I devoured it, like the meal you begin eating simply because it is placed before you, but which tastes so good you cannot stop until you have finished it. When I put the book down I had to spend several minutes trying to figure out where I was. As it turns out, I happened to be in a hotel room in Berlin, listening to the light-rail rattle by outside. I felt tired and confused and I wasn't sure what to do next.

Other reviewers have tried to make the case that this book is bad, or not as good as it "could be," because it meanders, because it is too emotional or because it is too matter-of-fact, or because it has too light a touch, or it's too focused on the hotels or too focused on relationships with women, grounded in too much materialism or skewed too heavily towards the fantastical, etc... All of these comments seem to me to miss the point. They approach the point, and all form a circle around it, but cannot quite find the center.

Steven Millhauser's primary concern is not what his character's dream is and is not. For the record, Martin Dressler's dream is not the money which he makes easily, it is not the adventuresome society of burgeoning laissez-faire capitalism he is born into, and it is not love or sex, though all these forces are present and serve to complicate matters. Believe it or not, his dream is not even a perfect hotel.

All dreamers, all artists, all creators wish simply to build a world: a microcosm which actively encompasses and contains their singular vision of the macrocosm in which they find themselves. Thus, like any great novel or painting or piece of music, the Grand Cosmo - Dressler's last attempt at creation, seeks to hold inside of it an entire city, perhaps an entire world by extension. However, as I said, it is not the Grand Cosmo which is important to Millhauser, but rather what the Grand Cosmo does to its creator. Millhauser's goal is to reproduce what it feels like to have a dream, an overwhelming dream, and to have one's dreams slip into one's daily life and vice versa. Millhauser wants us to see through the eyes of a dreamer.

Therein lies the frustration for the average reader: In the form of fascinating subplots, themes, and characters, they see Millhauser stumble seemingly at random upon perfect jewels. He picks them up, lets us stare for a moment through their beauty, and then returns them to the ground and moves on. We want him to collect them, to follow the trail to its conclusion, but he will not. He skims the surface of many topics our imagination might like him to dive into, but again and again he refuses. That is because to a dreamer, when contrasted with a dream, these things are ultimately trivial and unimportant.

Millhauser is showing us that in the mind of the dreamer and in the fantasy world Dressler has created for himself, the concerns of the material world fade to white noise. A previous reviewer calls Martin Dressler "out of touch," and though I find the term somewhat pejorative given how much I identify to the protagonist, I think it is accurate. But let us not confuse our characters with our authors. Millhauser is much too talented to simply abandon or gloss over that which could have made his story better. No, each detail presented to us by and through the macrocosm (otherwise known as the "real world") is merely a study in contrast, a grey version of the fully-colored thing as it exists in Dressler's fantasies, a landmark showing him and us the way to our eventual goal, which is the Ideal. Yes, Martin Dressler is out of touch with the world around him; but he is very much in touch with the world of dreams, and this is what Millhauser wants to show us.
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