Steve Wiley’s Grown-up Chicago Fairytale Lacks a Happy Ending
New York is a city of legends. Los Angeles is a town of myths. In The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan, author Steve Wiley frames the city in a milieu of fantasy. It’s an intriguing notion, and I hoped to enjoy a wry portrayal of the Windy City as a unicorn, pixie, and ogre habitat with a Chicago accent. Unfortunately, while competently written and filled with ideas, the book doesn’t quite deliver the whimsical urban daydream for adults its premise promises.
The characters are familiar. Richard Lyons, the protagonist, is an archetypal absent father/husband/businessman beset with the pudge of decadence. An impressively bland philanderer, alcoholic, and cokehead, Rich, of course, works on LaSalle Street, his job title repeatedly cited as “Vice President of Something or other”. Richard was happy as a kid, but is vaguely dissatisfied now. Like many a slice of literary financial district white bread, he ponders what it’s all about as he heads to his next drink/bump/boink. One wonders how many actual business types spend a lifetime being fantastic at amassing cash, before turning into philosopher kings. Well, it is a fairy tale.
On Michigan Avenue, Rich encounters our deuteragonist, Ms. Francesca Finnegan, a wee, laureled lass begging on the street, offering “farry” tales for spare change. Francesca reminds Richard of someone from several pages later, where he recollects playing Ghost in the Graveyard as a boy, seizing a fleet young gamine while failing to catch her name. This is, yes, Francesca Finnegan. She hasn’t aged a day—to his surprise but not ours—and she is entirely manic, pixyish, dreamy, and a girl.
Well, Francesca is less manic than arbitrary. A lyrical nag who manages to be nurturing and snappish, revelatory yet opaque by turns. Her motivations—beyond serving as Richard’s Virgil through the streets of Wiley’s semi-fantastic, calmly phantasmagorical Chi-town—are hard to pin down. Then again, this is a fairy tale, concerning itself mostly with dreamy situations and lessons learned, even if it doesn’t quite explain how we got there or what they are.
I suspect Wiley subscribes to to the writing lab admonition of “show, don’t tell,” but what he shows begets more whys than tells. He doesn’t tell us why protagonist Richard is who he is or does what he does, or why Francesca has reappeared in his life, or why they must take the heretofore unknown Lavender El Line that runs on the city’s East Side (a small joke for Chicagoans—the “East Side” is Lake Michigan) to Castle Aragon, where Richard will find something. I’m guessing it’s himself.
Wiley is inventive. The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan has some lovely imagery and interesting notions. It’s a pastiche of Chicago characters and history, painted with a folkloric brush. Some work, such as the Riverview Machinist, a faun-like wild man who built the Columbian Exposition Ferris Wheel to reverse the course of the Chicago River to pull back his drowned daughter from the lake’s grip. I liked the bit about the Queen of the Last Chicago Farm—who was carried off by a cyclone shortly after painting a symbolic family portrait resembling the Chicago flag. All nifty evocative ideas suitable for a postmodern fairy tale, but not always neatly told. And as a frame, Rich’s unheroic journey from businessman to family man doesn’t quite work.
The book’s humor isn’t always on the nose, and the gags aren’t gags so much as wispy and clever comments. In what I think is a jab at the prejudice woven throughout Chicago’s history, Wiley has characters from the early days dropping dialogue interlaced with stereotypes, slurs, and comic dialects. It’s a shade clunky. I don’t get the point of the “Polish Potawatomi” Native Americans, for example, and the edgy reference to the “Brown Line to Auschwitz” should have been left on the editing floor. Likewise, book and author have a weird preoccupation with the infamously godawful liqueur Malört. Perhaps I don’t appreciate The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan because I have never understood Malört’s mystique. The sole reward and challenge of imbibing the rancid wormwood-derived slop, it seems, is a foul, lingering aftertaste, and the impressed hoots and cackles of one’s fellow drunks. I suspect Wiley is playing to an audience of hipster Vice Presidents of Something or others.
Moving on to positive thoughts, Wiley pays homage to notable people and places in Chicago history. The stops along his Lavender Line are recognizable and often long-gone, lending even more of an “Once upon a time in Chicago…” vibe. The Green Mill, Dunning Mental Asylum, Fort Dearborn, the Everleigh Club, the Columbian Exposition, and such like turn up. We also passingly encounter Chicago VIPs like Chief Francis O’Neill, Al Capone, and first white settler John Kinzie. I suspect Wiley is an avid follower of Geoffrey Baer’s segments on Chicago Tonight. Wiley’s fairytale Chicago isn’t an Enchanted Forest so much as a Limbo where characters are less invested in making or granting wishes, climbing beanstalks, and kissing princesses awake, than passing through, telling their stories, and moving on into time’s mists.
Wiley might have intended to satirize what an amusement park Chicago has become for people like Rich, who move here with a smattering of historical knowledge, but no context for the rot that runs through its soul. Wiley’s Lavender Line and East Side might as well represent the tight little gentrified belts running alongside the lake and throughout the city’s boulevards—the other, rougher, neglected patches all-but-invisible to newcomers.
Overall, The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan is a promising premise that delivers sporadically. Credit to Wiley for coming up with an intriguing concept—Chicago’s secret and unseen world, tucked away in the city’s folds like a supernatural pedway—but he leaves many paths unexplored.
Buy the Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan here.