Brendan Short’s ambitious debut novel, “Dream City,” begins, appropriately enough, in the throes of the Great Depression. In that era, dreams were all many had to hold onto, but some had already given up on even those.
Not young Michael Halligan. As the only child to a loving mother and abusive father, the Chicago youth escapes from his surrounding miseries by burying his nose in books “ specifically, the chunky Big Little Books that novelized the comic-strip and radio-show heroes of the time: Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Secret Agent X-9, The Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon.
His love for these characters is nurtured by a weekly ritual depicted in “Dream City”‘s opening pages: a touching, near-sacramental, careful selection of which newspaper funnies his mom will then affix to the walls of his room “ a shield from the barren, cracked, gray drabness; a shield from the ugliness of the world outside.
Spare change is scarce, but Michael spends as much as he possibly can scrape together purchasing these volumes of temporary escape, much to the chagrin of dear ol’ Dad. He needs it; his father is a genuine hoodlum in the organized crime racket, and his mom is having a platonic affair with a fringe religious nut.
The boy’s very being is shaken when his mother unexpectedly dies, leaving him to be parented by someone who hardly qualifies as a parent, much less a role model of any kind. So Michael creates one: himself, the star of his own Big Little Book “ a crusader for all that is right, good, decent and moral.
As he grows up “ working at a gas station, driven into the arms of prostitutes, failing at the game of marriage “ his alternate reality helps him cope with the genuine one. Short chronicles his stages of life, with a pursuit to collect every Big Little Book in existence never wavering “ including the rare “Trouble in the City of Dreams,” which slipped through his fingers in childhood. He obsessively chases this mission in light of all that happens that is wrong, bad, indecent and immoral. And tragic.
Press materials for this book use Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” as a reference point, which immediately raised my skepticism. Yet, to my surprise, the comparison is not wholly unwarranted. Indeed, like that modern classic, Short’s story is a generations-spanning literary work infused with equal parts high drama and pop culture. Short may not be the level of Chabon “ nor “Dream” the level of “Kavalier” “ but the man indisputably has considerable talent.
It’s rare that a novel can affect and haunt the reader to a marked degree, but this one does. Short “Dream”s big. He’s one to watch.