Review by Donna Meredith
Dream Chaser, by Pat Spears, delivers an iconic figure as the protagonist: a Southern blue collar drunk struggling to hold onto a job and his family. That’s hardly a new story, but the author renders Jesse McKnight with such compassion and prose so perfect that Dream Chaser easily ranks as one of the most satisfying novels of the past year. It combines a page-turning plot with eloquent descriptions and a cast of flawed characters you grow to love.
This debut novel deserves a place on the shelf beside cherished contemporary Southern titles by Pat Conroy, Connie May Fowler, Paul Shepherd, Cassandra King, Sue Monk Kidd, and Dorothy Allison.
As the story begins, Jesse is paying a steep price for being an emotionally distant alcoholic father and husband. He has been laid off from his job, and his wife has run off in search of a better life, leaving their three children in his care.
Spears wastes no time before turning on the burner under Jesse’s feet. In the first scene Jesse drags himself into the county jail to rescue Cole, his teenage son. Miserably drunk and facing charges for stealing a neighbor’s car to go after his mother, Cole refuses to go home with his father. He prefers to remain behind bars.
That’s when you know how difficult it will be for Jesse to hold what remains of his family together. You begin to love Jesse because he tries anyway. Yet you want to shake him until his teeth rattle as he repeatedly falls back into the destructive behaviors that landed him and his kids in this mess. At the same time, you are congratulating the author for resisting an easy fix. Spears is far too skillful at character development to permit an instant, unrealistic transformation from loser dad to father of the year.
Overwhelmed with his responsibilities, Jesse stumbles often at first. None of the children trust their father. Experience has taught them not to. Ten-year-old Katie takes on much of the responsibility for four-year-old Sky, who is developmentally challenged. A cast of neighbors and friends also pitches in to help the family. Those relationships add depth to the story, bringing the McKnights both support and pain.
Jesse juggles part-time jobs and irregular hours with the demands of child care, cooking, and housekeeping. He can’t remember to buy toilet paper or to cobble together enough money for the kids’ shoes, instead choosing large, impractical gestures to win their approval. Like buying a wild mustang for Katie. Or a Corgi puppy for Sky. The refrigerator is nearly empty, and he is acquiring more mouths to feed.
Every time it seems as if Jesse might get a break, another disaster befalls the family, propelling the reader on to the next chapter to find out if Jesse’s heart is big enough to keep trying or if he will go down for good with the next punch—and what will happen to the kids if he gives up.
When a divorce lawyer enters the scene and the issue of child custody arises, Jesse knows he is in trouble. Losing the kids after all his efforts to win their love would break his heart.
Spears has a remarkable gift of taking the kind of rundown man we’d shake our heads over (thinking: what a loser, no wonder his life is a mess) and painting his humanity with such tenderness we want to rush up to the next down-on-his-luck stranger we see and offer a hug and assistance.
If you can read this novel without loving Jesse McKnight, you’ve forgotten what it is like to act like a silly fool to coax a smile from your baby, or to chase after dreams of a better life for your children.
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