Magazine article The Spectator

Realism Going off the Rails

Magazine article The Spectator

Realism Going off the Rails

Article excerpt

Martin Dressler is, as its subtitle rather self-consciously announces, `The Tale of an American Dreamer'. It is a highly American Dream, of 'a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dream-like good fortune', as we learn from the opening sentence. And by the end of the first paragraph we know the shape of the novel:

He satisfied his heart's desire. But his is a perilous privilege, which the gods watch jealously, waiting for the flaw, the little flaw, that brings everything to ruin, in the end.

Giving away the plot at the outset is a perilous privilege for authors, who may be tempted to replace suspense with portentousness. Fortunately, Millhauser resists the temptation. His prose is exuberant rather than knowing, and for most of the novel its ebullience carries one along. Only towards the end, in the accounts of Dressler's over-reaching projects, does the writing itself begin to suffer from the gigantism and over-inclusiveness which Millhauser is highlighting as the cultural hallmarks of the modern century.

Martin Dressler begins at the end of the 19th century. The eponymous hero's father owns a cigar-store; Martin is a `wellmannered' boy, but already has Ideas for window-dressing, and for gaining custom from a local hotel. The hotel offers Martin a job as a bell-boy, then as clerk, then as personal secretary to the manager; and his rise has begun.

Millhauser enthusiastically recreates something of the spirit of turn-of-thecentury aspiration found in, say, H. G. Wells's novel Mr Kipps, and successfully conjures up the perceived glamour of hotels of the period, whose sheer scale of operation and overt luxury added excitement to such novels as Arnold Bennett's fantasy, The Grand Hotel Babylon. But Millhauser's novel is not just a celebration of the high life of the period; it hymns the excitements (and occasional dangers) of a recklessly expanding city, with its

dark storefronts, the gas-lit saloons, the redlit doorways, the cheap beer dives, the dance halls, the gambling joints, the face in the doorway, the sudden cry in the night.

In this imaginative but essentially realistic world the novel seems happiest. …

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