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!

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