Read this book. “The Dream Merchant” is Fred Waitzkin’s first novel, following a string of non-fiction bestsellers, and he nailed it.
Mr. Waitzkin has used his extensive journalistic background to create characters and situations with clarity and detail that puts the reader exactly in that place at that time with those people. He uses an anonymous narrator, a longtime journalist friend of the principal character, to move the story between present time and flashbacks.
The author of bestsellers “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Mortal Games,” and “The Last Marlin,” Mr. Waitzkin describes this sprawling, brawling tale as the story of “a good man who does bad things.” Jim, the principal character in the novel, certainly qualifies.
A Canadian farm boy abandoned by a philandering father with big ideas and little success, Jim provides for his mother and himself through the 1930s hard times. He lusts for his father, his ideas, his suits, his cologne, and his Cadillac.
Dad, broken, returns to them and then shoots himself. He is gone but his dreams and presence are not. Jim discovers he has the gift of selling dreams. He is Gantry-esque, selling financial salvation rather than religion. In his mid-twenties, Jim meets Marvin, a scamming genius. Together, they Ponzi and Pyramid their way across Canada for 30 years.
Both made literal fortunes. Marvin kept his (including the government’s share). Jim spent his last nickel every time. Didn’t care. “Making money is easy for me,” he tells a succession of wives, lovers, and mistresses.As things often happen in business, the partners disagree and split. Jim continues his reach for the stars, at one point mining for gold in a Brazilian rain forest with people as deadly as the jaguars prowling near their campfires.
Jim is 75 when we meet him. He is living in a shack in Homestead, Fla., an easy drive from the palace on the Intercostal Waterway that he used to call home. He is in a new relationship with Mara, a 26-year-old Israeli woman with two kids. They met during a sales trip Jim made to Israel. Mara was the only sale he closed.
But it was a big sale. Huge.The thing about Jim is that he loves his prospects. These marks are not people who have money he can get. No. He loves them in that moment. They are bonded when he is selling them the path to a great life. And he needs them to love him. A good person doing bad things.
“The Dream Merchant” has sweeping and mythic plot lines. It can be a page-turner, or you can stop to think about simple truths, truths that many of us know, but can’t always quite get into our lives.
In a phone interview last week, Mr. Waitzkin, a West Tisbury homeowner and full-time New York City resident, showed up as a man comfortable with the truth and its coexistence with various forms of sociopathology.
“I spent 12 years writing this book. My son and I lived in the Brazilian rainforest for three weeks to get the feel of the place, its smells and sensuality. I wouldn’t dream of writing about it without experiencing it. My parents are in the characters. My dad, like Jim, was a super-salesman in New York City, making million-dollar deals. He crossed some lines, but I revered him. My mother was more like Ava [Jim’s first wife], more of an artist, a painter. I remember she gave me Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea,’ and that fueled my lifelong passion for fishing [Mr. Waitzkin is a veteran Derby participant],” he said.
Mr. Waitzkin’s body of work indicates a continuing exploration of his own relationships. “Searching for Bobby Fischer” recounts the relationship between the author and his chess prodigy son. “The Last Marlin” recounts the relationship between Mr. Waitzkin and his own father.
“Graham Greene said that life is antecedent in fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald said Hemingway’s novels were about his friends, and he made up lies about them [to create plots],” Mr. Waitzkin said.
Mr. Waitzkin is a committed researcher, and his methodologies for the development of several women characters in “The Dream Merchant” are interesting.
“Jim recreates himself several times, always with a younger woman,” he said. “This idea of an older man and younger woman is not explored much in literature these days. I did a sort of Kinsey report with 40 twenty-somethings, and half of them said they were open to a relationship with an older man. Father figure? Perhaps.” Ultimately, the narrator in the novel describes Mara’s passion for Jim as an attraction to the lion in winter rather than a virtual dad.
Mr. Waitzkin struggled with the character of Ava. “I knew who she was, but I couldn’t get it right,” he said. “I interviewed an actress, explained the character, and she got Ava perfectly. For a year, I sent her what I had written about Ava, and her feedback was enormously helpful.”
There is a lot to “The Dream Merchant,” delivered in an arresting style — sort of Lawrence Durrell meets Sebastian Junger. We hope for more fiction from Mr. Waitzkin.
He acknowledges that “The Dream Merchant” was his most exciting undertaking, but with his seventh decade on the near horizon, he is pragmatic and whimsical. “I don’t know what’s next, but I l know I won’t spend 12 years doing it.”