In a dramatic tale where childhood fantasies contrast with the realities of adult life, the city of Chicago serves as the theatrical milieu to this novel, where dreams become bitter disappointment and heroism is just a fantasy, an unfortunate byproduct of hard authenticity. A sensitive and introspective child, Michael Halligan spends his days reading his fantastical stories from his collection of Big Little Books seeking inspiration from their heroes and villains: Mike Steele, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, and the Lone Ranger.
Michael’s mother, Elizabeth, loves him dearly, but she’s a brittle and disconsolate woman, unhappy in her marriage to Paddy, a handsome but immature man who was once a virile championship boxer. Paddy has recently proved to be anything but the tender, kindhearted soul who offered to sweep Elizabeth off her feet and promised to make for her anything that she wished and support until the end.
Exhausted at living out the rest of today, and tomorrow, “and all the days that can possibly remain,” Elizabeth falls in with Eddie, a local born-again preacher who promises her courage and keeps her holding fast to the notion that he will make good on his promise of taking her away, plucking her from a mundane life with Paddy and his tobacco smoke, stale sweat, and cold, hard, drunken abuse.
Paddy and Elizabeth’s marriage is central to author Brendan Short’s epic dreamscape and his depictions of a woman hemmed in between her need for love and an independence that she craves in her every waking moment. Thanks to Elizabeth’s naive miscalculations and an abortion that goes horribly wrong, Paddy finally sees his wife’s tears and her loss but never quite recovers from the bitterness that all but consumes him after she’s gone.
On an afternoon visit to the Chicago World’s Fair, Michael is also able to catch a glimpse of his mother’s sadness and how she dreads her home and regrets her marriage. Yet it is here at the Fair that the boy is also awakened to the possibilities of life, for the first time seeing the amazing things that are happening in the world, the progress and wonderful inventions that complement his dreams of Buck Rogers and Oswald “hard knocks Knoll,” always undefeated and feared.
Over the next two decades, the stage is set for the clash between Michael and Paddy, both embittered and world-weary, blaming each other for the loss of Elizabeth. Their story is a delicate balance: while Michael grows older and falls into marriage, Paddy enters some shady business dealings with local hoodlum Rabbit Dunne. Michael’s ultimate act of betrayal - erasing numbers and red doctoring a contract - finally cements the seemingly unconquerable rift between father and son.
The landscape of Dream City is indeed vast as Michael and Paddy grow older, buffeted by the winds of life and their combative emotions. Michael ends up spending much of his life trying to recapture the innocence and purity that he had with Elizabeth even as he becomes ever more aware that his youth is fading. As a drunken Paddy watches over him, recognizing him and desperately waiting, his eyes constantly burning through him, Michael becomes ever more desperate to recreate the inky landscape of a Dick Tracy world and perhaps even find Trouble in the City of Dreams, the one book from the Big Little Series that has eluded him for all these years.
While Short’s themes of life as a series of transactions add much to the overall impact of what is basically a vast and delicately written family melodrama, the descriptions of Chicago from over half a century ago are the real star of the show, the city’s wealth and poverty, cold winters and endlessly muggy hot summers coming across as most reflective of the characters’ stifling inner lives.
Michael learns much about the high cost of loving even as he frantically holds on to his childhood memories through thick and thin, through his clandestine lifelong visits to prostitutes and his disastrous marriage to Sara, an unhappy divorcee. Ironically, those childhood dreams and their made-up stories of heroes and villains give him the strength to continue and imbue him with a sense of courage to follow his heart no matter the cost.