Martin Dressler is a turn-of-the-century New York City entrepreneur who begins in his father's cigar store but dreams of a bigger empire. That dream shapes into a series of large hotels. At first, Dressler's seems the archetypal American success story, but he does not quite grasp the future. The Manhattan of fabled skyline is about to take shape just over the horizon, but Dressler cannot see it. So the story becomes another kind of fable, as Dressler contemplates having "dreamed the wrong dream."
"There once was a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune"
"And he had a gift that surprised people: he could swiftly sense the temperament of a customer and make sensible, precise suggestions."
"But if people liked him... it wasn't at all, he decided, because he was striking to look at...it was because of something else, some quality of sympathy or curiosity that made him concentrate his deepest attention on them, made him sense their secret moods."
"As he walked, looking about, taking it all in, feeling a pleasant tension in his calves and thighs, he felt a surge of energy, a kind of restlessness, a desire to do something to test himself, to become, in some way, larger than he was."
"In Mr. Westerhoven's arguments there was always a ground of the solid and practical, but Martin knew that they were arguing... about the manager's secret desire to stop the city from it's rush into the new century, his desire to return to his childhood parlor..."