Take a Little Time with the Stories of Jack Finney

Jack Finney’s not a name that gets batted around much, even though he did write the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Stephen King called Finney’s novel Time and Again, The great time-travel story.” But if you’re looking for a book that’s immediately relatable, with an easygoing narrative and familiar settings, touches of humor, and a timeless (no pun intended) feel, check out one of Finney’s many contributions to the genre.

Which genre is that, you ask? One of the great things about Finney is his imagination. Technically, he’s sci-fi. I mean, time travel is a theme he revisits frequently, and of course that rests almost wholly in sci-fi. But he’s a thoroughly unique sci-fi writer. I’d actually categorize him as pop fiction with a bend toward sci-fi elements. His settings are of this world, of times that we generally recognize (as opposed to postulating what the future will look like). His style is conversational, in a way that instantly connects reader to narrator. From the first sentence in Finney’s stories, I feel like I’m right there next to the narrator, without the distance I feel when reading other works that might sacrifice that personal connection in favor of world-building and “type” characters—those characters who are more like representations of groups or philosophies and less like individuals. “Type” characters are fine, don’t get me wrong. But I need them to feel like they could be a real person.

Another way Finney achieves this relatability is his focus on interpersonal conflict. He avoids melodramatic, derivative, or gimmicky tactics. His writing is simply honest. I’ve heard various artists say things like, “To get to know me, all you need to do is read my books” or “listen to my songs,” et cetera. My guess is Finney felt no differently.

With that in mind, I’ll say I met Mr. Finney when I was about twelve years old, through his short story “The Third Level,” written in 1957. The story was included in my textbook for Language Arts (which was what they called “English” before you got to high school, and it’s a name I rather prefer, actually). Right away, I was hooked. That right there should tell you something—it was circa 1991, and while I’ve always had my eclectic, old-soul side that knew the words to 1931’s “All of Me” and 1965’s “Help Me, Rhonda” by the time I was ten, let me just say that I was also very much a child of my time. My Saturday mornings consisted of Saved by the Bell and talking on the phone with my BFF about what we’d wear to the mall that day and what boys we liked, my bookshelf was full of Sweet Valley High, and I had many pair of pushdown socks and jangly earrings in my possession.

And here this little story from 1957 had me hooked.

First and foremost, it takes place in New York City, and not just any New York City (there really are “eight million stories in the naked city,” and every single one takes place in a different New York). Finney’s NYC is the best version of itself. It’s every bit the city I dreamt of as a kid. Growing up in Buffalo, I wanted to be Michael J. Fox in The Secret of My Success. Diane Keaton in the beginning of Baby Boom. The cricket in The Cricket in Times Square. Well, maybe not a cricket, but you get my drift. I fell in love with the romance of the city, its possibility, its heartbeat. That’s what Finney taps into in stories like Time and Again, From Time to Time, and “The Third Level.”

“The Third Level” is about an everyman who, one day in 1957, happens upon the third level of Grand Central Station. Of course, there is no third level of Grand Central. As we learn in the story, the train station is labyrinthine and “growing like a tree,” according to Charley, our narrator. Charley makes a wrong turn one day down a tunnel and finds himself at a ticket counter from 1894.

In the span of about five pages, Finney makes clear two recurring themes in his work: first, that by reclaiming worthwhile ways of the past and holding on to them even as we progress, we can leave behind the world’s cynicism that’s beaten us down, and be reborn; and second, that we can make anything happen if we believe firmly that it can happen.

That’s why I adore Finney’s stories. He’s hopeful, yet never sappy. He’s reminiscent about the past, yet never jaded about the present. He reaches back to times forgotten, and he retrieves the best of those times to bring them into the present, both in the diegetic worlds of his tales and for us, the readers, to take with us into our worlds. Finney never criticizes progress itself; he just asks the questions, “Why can’t we bring the best parts of yesterday into today?” and “If a thing is good, why let it die?”

Now more than ever, in a time when technology and media constantly clear away the Real to make room for cheaper, plasticized simulacra (yes, I’ve been watching The Matrix again), it might be helpful to ourselves and our kids to reintroduce a few truly special attributes of our history. And not just that, but let’s hang on to what’s good for as long as we can, rather than appreciating it for a millisecond before changing the channel to see what’s on next. I recently saw an episode of Unsung that featured the artist Shannon, who virtually founded the Latin Freestyle movement in 1980s music. After success in her dance roots, her label wanted to push her into pop, the next big thing. If they’d let her stay where she was, elongating that magical moment, who knows how long Shannon, and Latin Freestyle, would have been part of our culture? We might have had decades more of her singular sound. Instead, she petered out in the pop world. Jack Finney’s books will make you take stock of the things that most enrich your life. He gives us permission to slow down, appreciate, and hold on to a tradition, a work of art, a way of life, a voice, a style of dress and language. And, let’s face it, I’m writing this when New York State, my state, is going through its peak of COVID-19. If ever, if ever, if ever there were a time to learn to slow down and appreciate what we’ve got, I’m pretty sure it’s now.

The best thing about Finney? While all this philosophical stuff is true of his writing, and you can find loads of symbolism and commentary in his work if you look for it, it’s also just entertaining as all get out. I feel that his writing, in fact, emulates the very thing he writes about—the style he uses, that level of imagination, quality, and intelligence, should be present in more novels written today. He’s fun, he’s family-friendly, he’s just a great storyteller.

Not to mention, his modes of time travel are about the most interesting ever conceived, outside of, perhaps, a flying DeLorean.

Top recommendations: About Time: 12 Short Stories; Time and Again; From Time To Time, all available at bookstores and online retailers.

What’s your Finney Fave? Share it in the comments, please!

Ten Seasons, Ten Reasons (Part 2)

*Potential Spoilers*

Welcome to Part 2 of Ten Seasons, Ten Reasons (to watch Beverly Hills, 90210 all over again). If you haven’t read Part 1, click here to see the first five reasons why I think this is a series worth revisiting. But if you’re ready for more, then here it is, home skillets.

6. Light & Fluffy . . . or not.

Maybe I’m weird (okay, I’m definitely weird), but while I can appreciate some true grit here and there in my entertainment, usually if I’m kicking back, I want to do just that. I like entertainment as a relief from reality, not an exact replica of it. I don’t want to feel lousy, or uncomfortable. I don’t want to be distracted by a thin storyline built on a minefield of F-bombs. I’m no prude or saint, and I love writing that can be dramatic and that makes me think or see things from a different perspective. But the most effective way to do that is not to show the worst of humanity in all its realistic glory, but to show the story in some way that combines new ideas, humor, and drama with that all-important ingredient: relatability.

90210 addressed serious issues of the day from race relations to abuse to income inequality to cutting (“Skin Deep,” S:8, E:28) to payola (“Making Amends,” S:8, E:23). But we also had the Beverly Beat tabloid. Andrea picking winning horses with Nat at the track (“And Baby Makes Five,” S:2, E:22). Dylan and Brenda trying to find more cultural interests (“My Desperate Valentine,” S:2, E:16). Sometimes the storylines got too silly, sure, like delving into Dylan’s past life or Val’s hijinks with Jonesy, but I’ll take that any day over a dirge of thinly veiled realism. The most important part? All of this was against a backdrop of teens/20-somethings just trying to make it through life. And who can’t relate to that?

7. It’s a Family Thing

Along the lines of Reason #6, did you ever sit down to watch a show with your family, and then five minutes in want to crawl under a couch because the subject matter is sort of the last thing in the world you want to witness with blood relatives? Thing is, though, the “too much reality” problem has a more serious consequence than just embarrassment. It’s a way to lose potential teaching moments, be they with a teenager or your 40-year-old brother who’s stuck in his stubborn ways.

The best way to get the whole family talking about issues is to make them comfortable enough to bring them into the fold in the first place. Again and again in 90210, sex is one major theme that’s handled deftly. A kid can’t talk to her parents about sex unless everyone is in the room, and that won’t happen if the story is interrupted for five minutes of soft-core porn (this was handled well with Brenda and Dylan in “Spring Dance,” S:1, E:21). Now, yes, 90210 was a network show in the 90s. You were never going to see Game of Thrones-level sex anyway. But part of what the writers wanted to do, especially early on, was create opportunities for parents and teens to talk. As the series went on, that focus changed to create opportunities for people to talk about a myriad of controversial issues. They recognized that if a viewer’s uncomfortable at getting reality shoved in his face, whether that reality is graphic sex/violence or a controversial opinion, he’s changing the channel. If, however, a story handles the same subject matter deftly, it can change minds and hearts.

8. The Biggest Characters, Literally

I love the show Smallville, really all things Superman, but it slayed me when Lana Lang ran a coffee shop while still supposedly in high school. I don’t think anyone ever went to class in that show. Whole storylines of 90210 revolved around the high school (West Beverly) and college (California University). The institutions themselves were treated as characters, many times informing a plotline, rather than serving as inconvenient scenery. “Higher Education” (S:1, E:6) was an early example of this, where grading curves and the pressure for students to perform go under the microscope. The power of authority figures comes back again at CU, in “Violated” (S:6, E:7) when Val’s marketing professor gives her a D on a midterm for not sleeping with him. But in virtually every episode until college graduation, the writers never lose sight that these are kids/young adults, and school is a huge part of that. The great thing about doing this is that school and our formative years are celebrated, or at least given some modicum of validation as a unique period in life. In turn, this validates young viewers who happen to be going through that period. We expect our kids to grow up too fast as it is. Why can’t we portray them enjoying/dealing with school before shoving them out into the “real world”?

9. Coats of Many Colors

While, as I’ve talked about in this post, 90210 took on its fair share of issues, never did it confuse “issue” with “character.” One of the ways 90210 successfully took on issues was by way of human nature, all sides of it, without judgment. The show let viewers get to know the characters by representing their whole personality, not exploiting one facet. Donna has a learning disability (“April Is the Cruelest Month,” S:1, E:19), becomes a fashion designer, and steals drugs when she becomes an addict (“The Girl Who Cried Wolf,” S:8, E:21). Brandon has a gambling problem (culminating in “Duke’s Bad Boy,” S:3, E:23), is usually the Boy Scout of the show and class president at CU, and beds his professor’s wife (“Otherwise Engaged,” S:4, E:9). We’re human, no matter who we are. We make mistakes. Sometimes, our intentions and decisions are great. And, sometimes, though our intentions are good, our methods are wrong. And sometimes even our intentions aren’t much more than self-serving.

90210 also showed main characters—characters we’d grown to love and didn’t want to believe were bigoted—having problems with people who were different from them. Take Steve, who couldn’t handle it at first when his mother revealed she was a lesbian (“The Following Options,” S:9, E:10). Quite a risk, writing a beloved character, Steve, with such a politically incorrect flaw. But it’s actually more inclusive to respect his discomfort as well as her right to be who she is, ironically enough. Because then writers are telling the viewer, “Hey, we get that you’re uncomfortable. That’s valid. And now that we respected your right to be uncomfortable, hear us out here.” Plus, most viewers aren’t villains, despite the biases all of us have. But if a show portrays a biased character as a villain, a biased viewer can write it off. “Well, I may not like people who are different from me, but I must not be racist/sexist/homophobic because I’m not a villain.” By showing that a nice, relatively open-minded young man can have a bias about his own mom, viewers don’t have any excuses not to question their own thinking.

10. Dead Presidents

In a world glorifying little rich Beverly Hills kids, 90210 stays remarkably grounded. There are just as many characters who need a waitressing job at the Peach Pit, who are down on their luck, who have to scramble for an income as there are Richie Riches. Sometimes, the Richie Riches are the ones who fall from their ivory towers and have to scramble. Obviously, the truth gets stretched. Carly, a single mom and waitress we first meet in “Aloha Beverly Hills” (S:8, E:1), can afford a cute beach bungalow. Well, this is part soap opera, after all. But Kelly’s mom has to sell their home when alimony runs thin (“Dead End,” S:3, E:21). Mr. and Mrs. Walsh have doubts about affording college for both Brenda and Brandon (“Highwire,” S:3, E:9). Not every starlet makes it—David has to resort to writing jingles when his music career tanks. Most famously of the money-trouble storylines is Andrea using the address of her grandmother’s tiny Beverly Hills condo so she can attend West Beverly, because in reality she lives outside the wealthy district. These aren’t usually one-off mentions, either. Andrea’s secret, for instance, which we learn in the pilot, plagues her well into season 2, culminating in “Down and Out (of District) in Beverly Hills” (S:2, E:12). Money is a real concern in this show, the way it is for all of us. The truth may be stretched, but from time to time the dollars have to be, too.

There ya have it, fellow 90s lovers, my compendium of why 90210 holds up. Is it a perfect show? Of course not. No show that would end with Kelly choosing Dylan over Matt would be (“The Penultimate,” S:10, E:26). But it walks a nice line between entertaining and thought-provoking, slang and poetry, traditional and modern. Check it out tonight on Hulu or, if you get it, Pop cable channel. Know of anywhere else it’s playing? Please share in the comments!

Ten Seasons, Ten Reasons (Part 1)

When the original Beverly Hills, 90210 first aired in 1990, I was eleven years old—the perfect age for the prime-time drama about cool, rich kids from California, their trials and tribulations. My girlfriends and I wanted to be Brenda or Kelly (I was a Brenda because of the brunette thing) and we kissed our Teen Beat pullouts of Luke Perry or Jason Priestly (Jason was always the one on my walls…kinda weird, now that I think about it, since I was a Brenda and the two were siblings on the show…). 90210 was a flop its first season out, but the great thing about series back then was, many times, they were shown a little patience. Series that went on to be megahits, like M*A*S*H and Cheers, and fan faves like Star Trek: The Next Generation, needed time to catch on. They bombed their first season out but, thanks to summer and reruns, ended up gaining the traction it would take to embed them in pop culture’s memory.

90210 has a similar story. The series picked up speed during a special summer season in 1991. My friends and I started craving it for two reasons: 1) because, for the era, the show shone a fairly realistic light on issues that were new to us, and 2) when it wasn’t covering issues of the day, it had some pretty fun melodrama. My guess is that this was a universal experience with its growing fan base. Pretty quickly in the first season, the writing turns from stereotypical tropes into solid story. ’90s teen caricatures (airhead Kelly, brainiac Andrea, disturbingly somewhat-racist Steve) turn into full-blooded (non-racist, thank goodness) characters you can actually root for and identify with. They lose that feeling of “some 40-something wrote his idea of a modern teen with shoe-horned slang” and the generic fog of late-’80s high school B movies (think Can’t Buy Me Love). Don’t get me wrong—90210 is hardly a pinnacle of original concept. Many of its storylines throughout its decade-long run are as soap opera as you can get. But around the time they drop “bogus,” “outrageous,” “jam,” “dork,“ “dope,” “you there?” and “studliest” from the dialogue, the show becomes watchable, even binge-worthy. If you’re nostalgic for the time, check out the early episodes for the clothes, the hair, and a few good-natured laughs. My college roommate loved the cheese factor of those early episodes, and I can still hear her giggles when I watch them. But if nostalgia isn’t reason enough for you to give 90210 another viewing, maybe with your own eleven-year-old kids, here are ten more (in two parts):

1. Manners, Boys

While the ’80s and ’90s came into their own with fresh faces in entertainment, new slang, trends, and ahem, M.C. Hammer pants, there was a strong tie to what came before. In 90210, you had the 1950s-themed Peach Pit diner (owned by Nat, played by veteran actor Joe E. Tata), which featured a jukebox packed with classic rock. You had a few glances back to Vietnam and student protests. And when I watched the episode “Dealer’s Choice” (S:9, E:3), I realized for the first time that throughout the series you had another throwback: simple but meaningful gestures of civility, like men standing when a woman gets up from the table, or holding doors open, or putting a jacket around a woman’s shoulders. Entertainment gives us fun, gives us escape, but it also gives us societal cues, cues like how to treat each other. Now, you might wonder if such positive behavior just might get cancelled out by all the soap operatic components and, you know, over-the-top backstabbing and cheating by so-called friends. But I don’t think it does in this case. Because we all know it’s bad to trick your boyfriend into taking drugs and then threaten to set the homecoming float on fire. The melodrama is so grandiose that we all know who’s right and who’s wrong in the morality play of the week. It’s the little things, the things that barely register with us, that seep into the subconscious. If you’re going to watch a guilty pleasure, I, for one, don’t think a few extra hits of civility is a bad by-product.

2. Sorry, Not Sorry

From a feminist’s point of view, 90210 may not be all that great a show. I mean, look at Donna Martin’s wardrobe after season 2—boobs boobs everywhere. Add to that the era of third-wave feminism and the debate over whether “sexual liberation” actually meant “objectification,” and I can see why some women would be put off by the show. But I’d argue that the series could get pretty gutsy when it wanted to, asserting the sometimes-unpopular feminist/progressive point of view, and doing it unapologetically. And whether you agree or not with where the politics go, you’ve got to give the writers points for crafting characters who stood by their convictions. Early in season three (starting with “Too Little, Too Late/Paris 75001”) there are a few episodes featuring a young Peter Krause as Andrea’s boyfriend. He’s Republican, she’s Democratic. Neither is wishy-washy. Neither is portrayed as uncool. They are who they are, and that’s all there is to it. Similarly, in “Skin Deep” (S:8, E:28), an entire storyline is based on how two female characters react very differently to a sex shop in the neighborhood: it makes Kelly uncomfortable, while Janet’s all good with it. In these episodes and those like them, 90210 showed us we could be respectful of others’ views while not compromising or feeling embarrassed about our own.

3. Dope Tunes

Speaking of not compromising our views, I’m just gonna say it: music from the ’80s and ’90s was awesome. Even pop had poetry. True, not every song or Peach Pit After Dark band is one for the ages, but you did have some winners and some effective use of a soundtrack supporting the story. 90210 fans were pretty bummed when seasons were released on DVD without the original music. It’s the same sad story of lots of great shows that came BD (Before Digital): music rights weren’t negotiated with the idea that someday people would be buying television shows to watch over and over. Getting those rights now is often astronomical. Happily, these days you can see the show as it was intended on Hulu, or if you get a cable channel that reruns episodes. One of my favorite uses of music in a show that became synonymous with launching new pop? “Wicked Game,” in two scenes with Emily Valentine on Lover’s Lane, first with Dylan and then with Brandon (“Wildfire,” S:2, E:8). Incidentally, this episode also featured “Addicted to Love,” Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” “Leader of the Pack,” and the unforgettable “Teenage Mutant Kung-Fu Chickens.”

4. The Buck Stops Here

Ultimately, we are responsible for our actions. We can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can kid ourselves. We can be swayed. We can be operating under false assumptions. We can have bad luck. But when it comes down to it, many if not most decisions in our lives are ones we can control, and if we make a bad one, we have to deal with the consequences. Even harder? We have to own it and admit we made the mistake. One of the great things about having the Minnesotan-transplant Walsh family was a built-in moral compass for the show. Often, the “moral of the story” moment was uber corny, and the parents, I’ve gotta say, could be rather wussy (not a commentary on actors Carol Potter or James Eckhouse—just how they were written). But there were times, like in season 2, episode 13’s “Halloween,” when the personal responsibility factor hit home. Kelly is nearly raped in the episode, and while the despicable actions of the assailant are never excused, Kelly does realize that her ultra-slutty witch’s costume, along with her less-than-sage action of following a stranger to a private room, contributed to a dangerous situation. Whether or not a woman should be able to dress and act however she wants is a separate argument—the truth is that, in our society, certain behavior begets certain behavior. 90210 reminds us that you can’t grow from laying blame; but you can grow from examining your own role in any given situation.

5. Dress Code

I’m not saying acid-wash jeans, pleated khakis, or Brenda’s necktie should necessarily come back in fashion (though any of these would be better than skinny jeans), but you have to admit the show had high standards when it came to style of the day. Guys and gals alike dressed for parties, clubs, concerts, even everyday life. I mean, if you’re gonna have a house party when your parents are gone for the weekend, why not wear sequins? Dumpy-looking jeans were reserved for the “troubled” characters, like Tara, the chick who went all Single White Female on Kelly and almost killed her (culminating in “The Big Hurt,” S:6, E:28). Athletic wear was reserved for, you know, athletics or athletes. I gotta say, after watching an episode or two, I’m inspired to change out of my weekend wear and throw on a posh skirt and cute sweater just to go to the store. Imagine if everyone watched an episode or two before planning out their wardrobe for the week. People would be better dressed for work than they’ve been since, well, ’round about 2000.

What do you think so far? Fun throwback show? Great ’90s nostalgia? Better than most of what’s on TV now? Hokey melodrama limited by its era? If you’re not convinced of 90210’sattributes yet (or if you are), come back next time for Ten Seasons, Ten Reasons: Part 2.

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