(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JAN 15, 2009)
The setting is 1930s Chicago and Michael Halligan, the protagonist of Brendan Short's debut novel, Dream City, is only six, when he regularly escapes to the land of the comics. In his “dream city,” Michael doesn't have to contend with his tough, domineering Irish mobster father, Paddy. Instead he can live out his life with his loving mother, Elizabeth, at his side. He imagines roughing up the bad guys and doing good. Michael longs to be like Dick Tracy or at least have the stoic, square-jawed superhero be his protector.
Michael watches as his parents' marriage becomes fractured— Elizabeth Halligan develops a platonic relationship with a local religious do-gooder, Eddie Kowal, as a way out of her stifling life with her husband. It is an indication of just how much Elizabeth comes to resent her life with Paddy and Michael, that when she finds out she is pregnant with Paddy's second child, she aborts the baby with a knitting needle and ends up bleeding to death.
Michael now has even shakier people watching over him—an abusive father who just can't stomach the weak-kneed Michael, a borderline depressive Aunt Mae who seeks refuge in alcohol and religion, and an Irish Catholic school system which metes out its own brand of discipline to children who color outside the lines.
Again, his refuge lies in the superheroes—only this time, Michael starts collecting a series of books called the Big Littles which chronicle his superheroes' adventures. What starts out as an idle pastime becomes an obsession as Michael chases down every title at the cost of all relationships and a life of any consequence. The novel shows us snapshots of Michael's life—as he makes a break from his abusive father, his awkward and ultimately sad relationship with his aunt, a failed attempt at marriage.
While the device proves to be successful, in some ways it also fails. While Michael's resorting to his Dream City to escape from the harshness of his life is understandable at least in the beginning, Short doesn't develop his character much beyond these basics. It is hard to root for a guy who it seems sometimes deliberately turns away from love and human emotions. It is obvious that the death of his mother affects both Michael and his father, Paddy, yet these ideas are not fleshed out fully. Sure, great stories often have many key elements understated or left unsaid, but in Dream City, it seems as if many ideas are half-baked, not fully formed. Towards the very end, Michael does earn some measure of redemption but it comes too late to make a strong impact of any kind. Nevertheless Dream City is a strong debut, hopefully a harbinger of even better things to come from its author, Brendan Short.
Material objects or “things” feature prominently in Dream City. There is Michael's obsession with the Big Littles. Aunt Mae's collections of perfume bottles. Even the religious activist Eddie Kowal is the leader of a society he calls the “Society for Sacred Possessions,” with “sacred possessions” being defined as “comforting objects that sustain our physical existence and foster moral behavior.” Finally Paddy Halligan justifies his mobster work to himself by pointing out all the things he could buy for his wife and child: “a Harris & Company bungalow, new leather shoes, the choicest cuts of meat.” Towards the end of the book, a lawyer asks Michael, “What's a thing compared to a person?” “Nothing, that's what,” he points out, “Not a damn thing. But still, when someone passes on to the great beyond, what's left of us but things? That's all we've got left—and that's sure as shit is something, isn't it?” In Dream City, Brendan Short succeeds in showing us that life is more than the net sum of our “things.”
Ironically enough, when Michael does manage to get a hold of the last volume missing from his Big Littles collection—a copy of Trouble in the City of Dreams—the book turns out to be a letdown. The moment is an anticlimax to all the anticipation he has bottled up over the years.
“The main problem with the past was its finiteness, he believed,” writes Short of Michael, “a person could rummage through it for something previously undiscovered, but at some point he had to acknowledge that there was nothing left to claim.” The melancholy with which the book ends shows us that there isn't much left for Michael to mine—either in his books or in his life. Dream City effectively shows us that no one thing can truly fill in the gaps in a life devoid of much meaning, a life spent chasing only possessions, be they “sacred” or otherwise.
- Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Dream City (2008)
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- Official website for Brendan Short
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About the Author:
Brendan Short grew up in Western Springs, IL, the son of a fourth-generation Chicagoan and a seventh-generation Dubliner. He attended Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, and then the University of Notre Dame, where he graduated with a BA in American Studies.
A year after leaving Notre Dame, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he made a brief misguided foray into graduate school in American Studies, spent two years writing captions for photographs for an online database, served as an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer, worked as a fundraiser for various antipoverty nonprofit agencies, got married, and began to write fiction seriously. He published several stories, received an artist fellowship from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), and twice won the Larry Neal Writer’s Award for Fiction, sponsored by the DCCAH.
Wanting to spend more time writing, he was fortunate to win a Writer-in-Residence Fellowship at St. Albans School, where he ended up teaching creative writing to high school students and writing a very bad first draft of what would become Dream City.
After another year fundraising, he moved to Austin, TX to attend the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas on a three-year fellowship in fiction and poetry. In Austin, he met a wide range of talented writers, learned to enjoy hot weather, spent much time with his Texas in-laws, became a dad, and generally felt grateful for the opportunity to read and write so much.
He then moved with his wife and daughter to the Chicago area, where he lives today.