This novel begins in the later 1800s and makes its way through the early 1900s and spends its whole length in New York City. Martin Dressler is a cigar-maker’s son, and when he’s old to enough to start thinking about such things, he comes up with a way to improve the family business but creating a more visually appealing display for the front window. He’s confident in the product, so he just needs to find a way to make it pop. When this doesn’t quite do what he wants, he comes across a cigar stand in a nearby hotel, and finds a way to get his father’s cigars in stock there. This begins the process of him not only knowing the one business but developing business principles in general. He also begins to work at the hotel and eventually comes to be the second in command and possible heir-apparent, with the implication he will marry one of the owner’s daughters. His choices are the very appealing intellectually, but plain-looking daughter, or the pretty, but plain-minded daughter. He picks the pretty one. He also has the issue of having strong, but confusing feelings for one of the cleaners at his boarding house, and he doesn’t have much experience or emotional capacity of understanding them.
This is where the novel sets him up. Full of options, lacking agency, and wanting everything. This carries him into adulthood and works out about as well as anyone finding themselves in these circumstances would.
The novel is almost fable-like in its narration, and that feeds some of the 1990s-ness of the book to me as well.