The narrator of The Dream Merchant introduces himself as a journalist from New York currently
in thrall to his best friend, Jim. As Jim fishes off his yacht in the Bahamas, a speed boat appears and a voice calls to him in a heavy Spanish accent. Jim raises a gun fast, hesitates, then squeezes off three rounds. The narrator
cannot comprehend the danger before him, and the event becoming a catalyst for Jim and for the narrator’s determination to compile
the eighty-year-old Jim’s journey through the early days of his life with single-minded detail.
In a Brazilian “heart of darkness” tale, Jim tells stories
from the first days of their friendship to his shady dealings in the jungles south of Manaus. Reduced to a brokenhearted salesman, Jim is smart man with a sense
of time passing, and he has a talent for filling the uniqueness of his life with glory and with depredation. Ensconced in a shabby one-bedroom apartment with Mara, his sexually aggressive Israeli girlfriend, Jim hopes for a new life. Mara is quite a salesman herself who plays both Jim and the narrator smoothly, but she’s clearly unprepared for the new reality of Jim's stomach-knotting poverty.
Pausing as he speaks about growing up as a farm boy in Western Canada and the early years of hunger and heartbreak,
Jim describes his once-lavish lifestyle with his second wife, Phyllis, and their fervent promises and plans for the future. Obviously Jim is a man who has become delusional. He can't let go of the past no matter how hard he tries. From the illegal Ponzi schemes conducted with his partner in crime, sleazy Marvin Gesler, the reader is privy to so much history flashing past.
Life’s tawdry surfaces are transformed by Mara’s allure and artful coaxing. As Jim grins at the memory of some shady business maneuver or “whorey deal,” he recalls his tortured first wife, Ava, who in the spring of 1966 had an affair with
the infamous Lenny Bruce. A poverty-ridden childhood then a series of clever deals with an abrupt trajectory prepare Jim for a rambunctious, risk-taking approach to life, rendering him thoughtful and quite selfish but always aware of the economical motives of others.
We are never are quite sure how much of Jim's past is accurate. Like many good salesmen, Jim is used to promoting his products with great exaggeration. When his talent in sales bleeds over to his personal life, it doesn’t take long for events to spiral downward and for his early admiration for Marvin, Ava and Phyllis to sour. Jim's tragedy
lies in the need for most people to either center their lives through financial success or merely be loved by friends and family.
A bit more enduring within the familiar glow of Jim’s "wholesale optimism and tarnished glamor," the story flashes back and forth, exposing Waitzken’s major theme: Jim's interpretation of the American Dream and how an attractive businessman will indubitably acquire material comforts. Jim's life symbolizes the collapse of the notion that personal success is measured by one's financial prosperity.
While I can appreciate the story’s literary nature, I found it hard to get inspired by this novel. I barely finished it. The tale is beautiful and seductive, but its frenetic pace is unyielding, and the endless ruminations on why boring people stay married for no other reason than monetary gain gets tedious. Even in Manuas, where Jim mines gold in truckloads, he eventually fashions a warped, dark reality that mirrors his own relentless ambition and avarice.