Fred Waitzkin first won notice with “Searching For Bobby Fischer,” published in 1988, a narrative that follows his young son Josh’s development into a chess genius and champion. The lovely film of the same name that came out in 1993 broadened Waitzkin’s reputation by winning the hearts and minds of fathers of gifted children everywhere, in large part because of the piercing, tender performance of Max Pomeranc as the 7-year-old Josh.
Twenty-five years have passed between “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and Waitzkin’s debut novel, “The Dream Merchant.” Waitzkin is now 70 years old, quite elderly for a step onto the stage as a first-time novelist, and we can speculate that “The Dream Merchant” is a kind of hail and farewell to literary culture. It feels like Waitzkin has thrown everything he has and then some into the project.
The quick acclaim for “Searching For Bobby Fischer” and the late debut of this novel may explain something of the frantic pace of high-octane narrative propulsion Waitzkin achieves. The story concerns a certain Jim the narrator runs into in a dive bar on Bimini, Bahamas, in 1983. About 55 at that time, handsome, barrel-chested (we are meant to think of photos of Hemingway shirtless about to go fishing for marlin in the deep, blue sea) Jim charms the nameless narrator (clearly a stand-in for Waitzkin) into a great friendship by telling great stories about his successes as a fisherman, as well as his schemes and projects all having to do with selling something. Jim is the salesman without peer, who bounces from project to project never looking back with regret or second thoughts.
Jim and his early partner, Marvin Gesler, “a Jewish guy about 70 pounds overweight,” together can sell anything, from near worthless household toasters and the like to near worthless real estate, relying mostly on pyramid schemes drawing in the naïve and the greedy with the dream of making the big score. Gesler, a man of disgusting habits of personal hygiene, is the idea guy and Jim puts Gesler’s theories into practice. With the inevitable pyramidal collapse, Jim and Gesler simply move on to something else. While along the way the partners gather in tons of money. Explicit comparisons can be made to Bernie Madoff.
The story of Waitzkin’s protagonist is also the story of the narrator’s father and by extension Waitzkin’s own father. These men were salesmen, all of them. Given the overall narrative arc of rise and fall, comparison with “Death of a Salesman” seems inevitable, but somewhat misleading as to the details by which the story is told. There’s more Mamet here than Miller, more intimidation, chicanery, ruthlessness and repeated rebounds, rather than an endless spiral of defeat. The sales tactics here remind one of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Capable of great callousness, dropping sales allies and mistresses without a second thought, Jim nevertheless stays steadily optimistic. For most of the book the narrator remains as a stenographer, taking pretty much at face value whatever Jim has to say, never really questioning the probability of exaggeration or the possibility of lying. The narrator never quite grapples with the idea that he’s getting a long con.
“The Dream Merchant” is a novel with too many sex scenes: The governing idea is that every successful sales job must end in a sexual as well as a monetary score. Jim is virile into his 80s (he tells us repeatedly). In an early chapter, Jim (already near 80) takes up with an Israeli woman, a 30-year old mother of two small boys, who adores him so thoroughly that she arouses him to near continuous sexual performance, often in the direct presence of the narrator and seemingly put on in part at least for the narrator’s voyeuristic delectation. The most graphic sex writing comes at the front of the book, perhaps to catch the interest of the casual bookstore browser, but the narrator keeps careful accounts of Jim’s sexual prowess throughout. After the first section, the sex writing, formulaic and tired, resembles the kind of middlebrow, soft-core porn available on the bookracks of any Hudson News store at any airport.
In Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” the narrator Marlow affirms that Jim (no surname) “was one of us.” For all of his distance, mystery, humiliations, failures and possible redemption as a hero, Conrad’s Jim was finally an ordinary British chap. Waitzkin, in “The Dream Merchant,” probably has Conrad in mind as the narrator tells the complicated story of his central character, named simply Jim (also with no surname) suggesting similarly that Jim is “one of us,” an ordinary guy, only one with much more drive and gumption. In broadest outline both books are adventure stories. But that’s not saying much. Unlike Conrad, “The Dream Merchant” tells its story without a bit of self-conscious reflection, without the narrator’s ironic distance acting as skeptical commentary. In consequence it’s just one adventure after another. How much is to be believed? How much is simply the skilled salesman’s line of serial exaggeration? We can’t know.
As in “Lord Jim,” “The Dream Merchant” divides neatly into two sections. There we have Jim fleeing to Patusan, here we have Jim fleeing into the Amazonian jungle to embark on a dangerous gold-mining project. Jim’s disappearing to the jungle is a consequence of having been embezzled out of his latest fortune by his partner, Marvin Gesler. So, flat broke, and with the IRS after him for something like $20 million owed in back taxes, he starts over on the rumor that it’s easy to find gold in the deepest jungle. It turns out to be not so easy. Yet Jim succeeds in extracting a fortune out of the Amazonian dirt. He loses that fortune almost immediately to his second partner, Ramon Vega, who assaults Jim’s mining camp by helicopter, massacring all the workers and absconding with satchels full of gold bars.
Jim’s partners (Gesler and Vega) are the only characters in the book to have last names and both betray him, one by embezzlement and other by mass murder. I have no idea what to do with this detail besides simply to take note of it.
Is this a good book? Probably not. And I wanted so much to like it more than I do, because I like the movie of “Searching for Bobby Fischer” so much. My wish is that the interested reader might revisit the movie, courtesy of Netflix. Without aesthetic grace, the novel has a mind-blowing energy propelling the reader from one episode to the next, up and down, back and forth, jumping around in time and geography. Yet the narrative is surprisingly easy to follow.
This is an accessible book. The reader going along for a sometimes preposterous ride is moved finally to a grudging admiration just by the sheer stuff that gets you to turn one page after the other. For example, in one vivid scene almost at the end of the book we find Jim after Brazil completely impoverished yet again (but only for the moment, because Gesler, after decades, becomes conscience-stricken and is about to return to his former partner half the fortune he embezzled). Always the optimist, Jim strolls hand-in-hand through a Miami shopping mall with the gorgeous, sexually voracious Israeli, Mara, 50 years his junior, entirely happy. Lucky Jim.
The Dream Merchant
By Fred Waitzkin
Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin’s Press
296 pages, $24.99.
Stefan Fleischer taught in the English Department at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He now resides in Houston.