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Desperation and Discomfort In the Lap of Luxury

Dreams Gone Awry

MARTIN DRESSLER: THE TALE OF AN AMERICAN DREAMER

By Steven Millhauser

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Crown

294 pp., $24

THE DINOSAUR CLUB

By William Heffernan

William Morrow

320 pp., $24

THE COST OF LIVING

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By David Dorsey

Viking

288 pp., $23.95

In the middle of the Jazz Age, four years before the 1929 stock market crash, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote "The Great Gatsby," a poetic novel that immortalized the "incoherent failure" of a romantic American gangster.

Although narrator Nick Carraway hardly mentions his work as a novice bond salesman, signs of Wall Street's stunning new wealth pervade his descriptions of New York society. Fitzgerald was no economist, but Gatsby's career is locked in our collective consciousness as a prescient metaphor of rise and collapse.

As stories of the market's volatility again move from the business page to the front page, American novelists have recently provided some chilling analysis of the pressures imposed by quick wealth and the fear of losing it.

In this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Martin Dressler," Steven Millhauser explores a cigar store clerk's rise to real estate magnate. Martin's hubristic vision of a grand New York hotel eventually eclipses his friends, his wife, even his own wealth.

Though set at the turn of the 19th century, this quiet novel has its moral sights on our end of the century. Neither a dashing Jay Gatsby nor an aggressive Donald Trump, young Martin is an intellectual developer, a pioneer in the world of advertising and image creation.

Millhauser's third-person narrator retains a cool distance from his protagonist and the increasingly sensational monuments he builds. At times one wishes for as much psychological insight as historical and architectural detail. The final effect, however, is stunning, as Martin finds himself increasingly isolated. In a Gatsby-like conclusion, he realizes the limits of his dreams.

The plight of the businessman is handled with less success by William Heffernan in "The Dinosaur Club." Warner Brothers reportedly paid a million dollars for the film rights, and the author obliged by providing a novel designed like a Hollywood movie.

The story taps into the financial anxieties of well paid, middle-aged executives in an era of downsizing. Jack Fallon's Fourth of July weekend is ruined by the double-barreled news that his wife is leaving him and his company's young CEO wants to force him out of the business he helped found. Trained in the jungles of the Vietnam War, however, Jack organizes fellow "dinosaurs" to resist their yuppie superiors.

What's troubling about the novel, though, is what's troubling about most revenge fantasies. Jack never gains an understanding of his own participation in a culture that prizes profit above all else. We're meant to feel shocked when his years of sacrifice to the company are met with dismissal, but those years of sacrifice drained the life from his marriage and created two horribly spoiled children. A real victory would have restored those treasures.

The most engaging story to explore the tensions inherent in America's economic boom comes from first-time novelist David Dorsey. In "The Cost of Living," narrator Richard Cahill delivers a haunting confession of his slippery descent from advertising executive to drug runner with painful honesty and wit.

Beneath an exciting plot, Dorsey presents a troubling critique of the modern economic forces that support suburban life but can also render it unsustainable.

The marketplace holds out the ubiquitous promise of wealth, while devaluing the values and experiences that wealth is meant to procure.

These characters live in a web of name brands that drain identity from the people who expect to acquire prestige. Despite the whirl of answering machines, cell phones, faxes, and e-mail, Richard and his colleagues find it almost impossible to communicate.

Richard finds his loyalty to friends tattered by the need to secure his own advancement. "Once you went into management," he notes, "you could never do a U-turn and become the nice guy you'd tried to be before the promotion."

At home, work saps his interest in literature and philosophy. Similarly, pressure to win bids transforms his wife's art dealership into a clearinghouse for bland corporate decor.

Dorsey blends the worlds of corporate greed and ghetto crime, white privilege and black despair, laying bare the moral confusion of conflicting goals. Desperate to resolve the apparent clash between decency and success, Richard Cahill becomes a haunting representation of our age.

* Ron Charles teaches English at The John Burroughs School in St. Louis.


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