Salesman or scammer, Jim makes and loses several fortunes in North America and the Brazilian jungle, but then loses himself as he runs over anyone who gets in his way.
Old and broke he falls in love with - or at least has serious sexual desires for - Mara, a beautiful and ambitious Israeli woman fifty years his junior. Strangely and perhaps even more unlikely, Mara falls for Jim - or perhaps what he could be if he could again rise from poverty.
"The Dream Merchant: A Novel", published by Thomas Dunne Books for St. Martin's Press in March, is a first novel for Fred Waitzkin, 69, a non-fiction author and journalist known for his critically acclaimed and bestselling 1984 memoir about his chess prodigy son, "Searching for Bobby Fischer".
Waitzkin talked to Reuters about his new book and why his first novel is only coming out as he nears his 70th birthday.
What took you so long to write this book?
I always wanted to write a novel. When I was younger, I wanted to start writing fiction but I was not good at it. In the middle part of my career I wrote for the big magazines and I learned a lot about stories. Journalism is tremendous training ground as a novelist. It took me 10 years to write (this book). I am also a slow writer. And I did a tremendous amount of research. I wanted to smell the jungle, go to the brothels, go to the gun shops. I have to see it and feel it as a writer.
You describe great and numerous sex scenes. What does that say about you?
Obviously, I like sex scenes. Jim is a lusty guy. There is not a lot written about old men who have love affairs with young women. But it's part of the human condition. Most old men would love to have an affair with a young woman. Men of power do have relationships with young woman. It rejuvenates them. The women who read the book like it.
It's a man's book. Why would women read it?
For any reason a woman would read a good book, it speaks to the human condition. It tells a story about the world we live in, the people who live in it. A good book is a good book.
What did your wife and daughter think of the sex scenes, that you their husband/father wrote them? How long have you been married?
My daughter (28) was more uncomfortable than my wife (69) but ultimately they loved it. Forty-nine years.
Is this the life you wish you had lived?
In fantasy, sure. When I went to Brazil (to do research) I found it intoxicating. Vicariously, I feel I have lived that life. I would not replace my own with it. Writing for six months about certain characters I felt I lived those characters.
Was writing the book therapy for you?
All my books are therapy. You live so intensely. You empty out everything that is important to you. I have felt a rape or purging of myself every time I write a book.
Are you a happy man?
Yes, but I am a complicated guy. How can you live a life and not feel angst, sadness, nostalgia.
Who was "Jim" in real life?
I admired my father hugely. He was a super salesman but he crossed a lot of people, he ruined people. Frankly my father has shown up in all of my books. Jim is not Abe Waitzman but he is inspired by Abe Waitzman.
Without giving anything away, was there an alternative ending?
The way I write, the greatest thing are the surprises. I did not have this novel blocked out. I did not have the last 30 pages at page 150 but I knew the last line 200 pages ahead.
It's not a Dick and Jane novel. There are a lot of ruined women in Jim's wake. In his attempts to remake himself, there are a lot of people ruined.