Part of what made The Dream Merchant so compelling, and at times harrowing, a read for me are its themes: love, loss, rags and riches, to be sure, but also the theme of aging, and its associated loss of power and possibility.
The Dream Merchant by Fred Waitzkin. Thomas Dunne Books, 304 pages, $24.99.
By Harvey Blume
Early on in this irresistible novel, Jim, its main character, informs the narrator that “The greatest thrill for a gambler . . . is losing a fortune and bottoming out.” Bottoming out may be a strange way to get your kicks, definitely not everyone’s idea of a good time, but Jim, over the course of his long life—we wave goodbye to him when he’s 80—makes a habit of it, nose-diving repeatedly, touching bottom and resurfacing. For him, “Having nothing, starting again, unhampered, is so much sweeter than standing pat and being mediocre.”
There’s no danger of Jim standing pat or being mediocre. He wouldn’t know how, in his trajectory from impoverished boyhood on a farm in Canada, where he kept his family from hunger by learning the language of cows in order to track them and bring them home, to his career in the Brazilian Amazon, where he amasses a fortune, neither his first nor his last, heading up a gold rush.
Jim is a master salesman, “always fun to be with, charming, a good storyteller . . . he tantalized with the impossible, opened hearts with the lure of opportunity.” Jim knows he’s close kin to Willy Loman and weeps when he sees the Broadway play starring George C. Scott. He may remind you, as well, of the realtor played by Al Pacino in the movie version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, who makes his clients feel he isn’t troubling to sell anything as paltry as mere property; no, he is revealing existential truths it would be a shame for them to miss.
Jim is not the only powerfully drawn character in this book. He is matched, almost, by Marvin, his partner and inspiration in flim-flam, marketing bonanza, and plain old, ludicrously lucrative Ponzi schemes. “Ideas just tumbled out of Marvin Gesler. . . . He would become emotional and sweaty describing scams to Jim. Marvin had many more ideas than he could ever implement and this tortured him.”
Marvin is as physically unappealing as Jim is handsome. “Marvin gawked at Ava, with her perfect angel face and devil body, spittle gathering at the corner of his mouth.” This brings us to Ava, Jim’s wife, at the time, and a knockout. She “liked high times and speed, ugliness, big gambles, putting it on the line and winning big or losing everything. That is how Jim read her. But Ava liked it darker than Jim could understand.” Perhaps you will have noticed that Ava is like Jim, but maybe more so. The characters in this novel oppose, trigger, and raise the stakes for each other. And we have not yet even come to Mara, the young, Israeli woman who may rejuvenate an aging Jim or, as some in the story believe, especially his ex-wives, suck the last dollar out of his diminished hoard, that this time he will lack the vitality to replenish.
Fred Waitzkin knows first hand about powerful, powerfully obsessed, characters. The book for which he is best known, Searching for Bobby Fischer: The World of Chess, Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy (1984) is a marvelous take on parenting Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy in question, and a well observed account of the various, sometimes grimy, chess scenes involved. The book has all the fiber and sense of reality the drearily sentimental Hollywood version lacks. Waitzkin writes, for example, of a scene in which players are gathered to analyze a game: “The floor was awash; Coke cans, broken glass, soggy candy wrappers and wads of toilet paper floated on the putrid rug.” The assembled chess fiends had been at it for two days and “Couldn’t stop. Their eyes flashed and blinked, looking for new combinations and possibilities. No one seemed to mind, or even to notice, the plaster falling off the walls or the slop underfoot.”
Searching for Bobby Fischer was followed by Mortal Games: The Turbulent Genius of Garry Kasparov (1993). The chess scene Waitzkin describes in that book, an intimate portrayal of Kasparov as he prepares for yet another grueling match with Anatoly Karpov, has global dimensions. We’ve left Washington Sq. Park, storied venue as that may be for American chess players from Bobby Fischer on, and are engaged with Gorbachev, Perestroika, and the Fall of Communism. In 1990, Kasparov crows to Waitzkin, “Next year, in 1991, the Soviet Union will not exist. Definitely. Mark my words. Next year, there will be no more evil empire.” He then laughs “at the outrageousness of his prophecy,” which of course turns out to be entirely correct. Kasparov has dueling obsessions, Karpov and Communism. Waitzkin sometimes wonders if he is “thinking about Gorbachev [or] a novelty in the King’s Indian defense.”
Kasparov is an obvious precursor/prototype for Jim—gallant, heroic, engaged in contests that are mortal stakes. At times Waitzkin describes Kasparov in terms that, with minor modification, would apply as well to Jim. “It was the life of a salesman. There was no tenure. As a chess professional, you were only as good as your last sale, your last victory.” Kasparov tells Waitzkin, “Living this life is a drug.”
When I had a chance to talk with Fred Waitzkin by phone about The Dream Merchant, I brought up the Kasparov/Jim connection. He responded, “That’s very interesting, so interesting. When you mention the connection, I can kind of feel it in my bones but I never thought of it.” From this I can only conclude that it may be useful, if not necessary, for a terrific writer like Waitzkin to keep certain secrets, above all, from himself.
Part of what made The Dream Merchant so compelling, and at times harrowing, a read for me are its themes: love and loss, rags and riches, to be sure, but also the theme of aging and associated loss of power and possibility. The prose is headlong but achieves striking believability; this fiction makes seamless connections to nonfiction. Lenny Bruce, for example, makes a very convincing appearance in the book. He is smitten by Ava and maybe just as much by the pure shtick of salesmanship she shares with Jim. (Jim, in Brazil at the time, is occupied with gold, the improvised culture of his camp on the Amazon, and other women.) For Bruce, the sales scene he happens upon strikes him as “Swiftean and hilarious, the endgame of capitalism. [He]immediately introduced bits and snatches of Marvin’s business scam into his comedy routine [and] riffed on love and money with obsessed pig famers buying color televisions they didn’t need.”
Ava, culturally worlds apart from Lenny Bruce, “had never heard of Charlie Parker, Monk, Coltrane, George Shearing; she’d barely heard of capitalism.” Heroin, and Bruce’s lethal addiction to it, which he is unable not to share, help bridge that gap.
Waitzkin wrote this book with the help of a key real life model—model in the sense a painter might employ and have visit his studio. Jerzy Kosinksi used to polish his imperfect English by dialing telephone operators to ask what they thought of a certain turn of phrase and how they might Americanize it. Waitzkin went much further; he hired an actress to meet with him monthly for a year to model Ava. He has said that at first “This great idea was beginning to feel like a failure.” The “sweet girl” he employed didn’t in the least resemble the Ava he wanted a few tweaks to his imagination to conceive. By the end of this process, though, the actress amazes Waitzkin with her version of Ava’s “responses, her muted passion, her madness, a reckless impulse to bolt to the edge of the cliff.” Novelists don’t usually work this way. Then again, why not?
Mortal Games ends with Kasparov amazing Waitzkin. The chess champion, exulting after beating Karpov in their soul sucking battle, casts off his jacket, jogs around a bit, then launches into a headstand. Waitzkin writes, “I had no idea that he could do this.” But that’s not all. “Watch this,” said Kasparov, as he “began doing slow pushups from the handstand position,” his face turning red. “He would be thirty years old soon, no longer a prodigy. ‘Could never do this before, Fred. Five. I can do five of them.'”
The question hanging at the end of The Dream Merchant is whether Jim, against longer odds, can manage comparable revitalization.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.