The power of dreams

MANCHESTER - If you merged Joseph Conrad's classic novel "Heart of Darkness" with Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," what would you get?

One possibility is Fred Waitzkin's new book, and first novel, "The Dream Merchant." In a nutshell, it's the saga of a salesman who comes from humble origins, wins and loses at least two sizable fortunes, and is determined to prove, F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding, that there are indeed third acts in American lives.

Living large, but maybe not well. Redemption. Sensuality. Essentially good people being driven by forces outside their control and understanding to do not nice things, then seeking atonement. Fantasies always tantalizingly close but always ever so slightly out of reach. "The Dream Merchant" has a bit of all of that.

"I think 'The Dream Merchant' speaks to the human condition," Waitzkin said in a recent telephone interview about his book. "I didn't really have a specific message when I set out to write the book."

Waitzkin will be coming to Manchester Friday, May 10, for a live interview and discussion at the Northshire Bookstore, which starts at 7 p.m.

Waitzkin made a large splash in the world of literature when he published his first book in 1984, "Searching for Bobby Fischer," a story about his chess prodigy son, Josh, and his pursuit of international success at the game. Bobby Fischer, many will recall, was the ever-so-slightly misanthropic, but first American, to burst to prominence in the world of chess grandmasters in recent times. The highly successful book was eventually made into a movie that starred Max Pomeranc and Ben Kingsley.

Waitzkin went on to write two other books after that, while also earning numerous credits for magazine feature writing in publications like Esquire, Forbes, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated.

The story opens, fittingly, when two guys meet in a bar near a fishing hole on an island in the Caribbean. One is a writer, never named, who largely narrates the tale. The other is Jim, the super-salesman just emerged from deep in the Amazon River jungles of Brazil, where he made a fortune as a gold prospector. This, we later find out, was his second major strike with financial success. His first one involved a partnership with a man who saw selling opportunities in almost anything, from Quonset huts to furniture and fixtures. Before and after that came the pyramid schemes, where ordinary folks in search of quick and easy riches were lured into buying coupons whose value kept rising until one day, they didn't.

Jim and his business partner, a character named Marvin Gesler, formed a perfect team. One was the "ideas guy" who saw opportunity in everything. But to make his ideas work, he needed Jim, he of the mellifluous voice and innate salesmanship. Together they made millions until Marvin's skating around the tax laws of Canada, where their company was based, was discovered and ended the joyride. That eventually leads Jim to the heart of the Brazilian jungle, meet ups with all kinds of colorful and sometimes unsavory characters, and a close-call escape. All of this serves to set the stage for the penultimate chapter in Jim's life - impoverishment and an even more desperate effort to obtain the elusive dream of success and some form of happiness. That final chapter includes a relationship with a young Israeli woman, named Mara, 50 years his junior, in what might be considered a two-way fantasy. Or perhaps not - Jim may be a "dream merchant" but not necessarily an impractical dreamer. He's good enough at it to keep Mara interested.

Along with Mara, there are the other women. The tale covers Jim's life through three marriages, each one more of a departure from the concept of the stereotypical model of husband and wife. There's also a cameo appearance made by the iconic comedian and political/social commentator of the late 1950s/early 1960s, Lenny Bruce. At one time, before his heroin addiction and his controversial, provocative comedy routines got him into ongoing legal troubles, he was one of America's top entertainment acts, at least among one hip sub-group of national life.

On one level, the book can be read as a morality tale of the shallowness of the pursuit of financial gain for its own sake. But there's another, more subtle piece to the storyline. That one is about fantasies, and the search for their fulfillment, and the power of those dreams to motivate good people to do bad things.

The unnamed narrator is also carried along on this current, Waitzkin said.

"He lives with this fantasy himself of living a more unusual life," he said during the phone interview. "He's a journalist, he writes these articles and he sits in his chair. He's not as old as Jim but he's getting older, and the whole idea of remaking himself - the thing about Jim is he re-conceives himself and sheds his skin and becomes a new person again and again in the book - and he does it with the help of these young women - they inspire and energize him in a muse-like way."

It's a wild, unpredictable, erotically-charged and choppy ride, and a hard book to put down because what's around the next turn of the page can't wait.

Waitzkin will be discussing his new book and first novel on Friday, May 10, at 7 p.m. at The Northshire Bookstore.


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