This omnibus collection of 3 short novels is a case where a current re-reading failed to live up to the expectations set by the first time I encountered the book.
The Woodrow Wilson Dime is an expansion/re-working of the short story “The Coin Collector” (featured in I Love Galesburg in the Springtime). I think it’s much weaker than the original; Finney adds a Walter Mitty-ish dimension by describing some of his protagonist’s daydreams as if they were factual; this seems like an iffy gambit in a story in which fantastic things “really” happen, and didn’t exactly help maintain my suspension of disbelief. Finney seems to be aiming for the mood of a vintage madcap flick, but I think some comedy tactics work much better with a visual medium. If, for instance, a film requires that a character not realize that what seems to be a dog is a human in a dog costume, the movie invites both the audience and the cast in on the joke. We can see that the person doesn’t really look like a dog, so the fourth wall is broken; we know the actor being duped isn’t really dumb enough to mistake a human for a dog (even if the character is). The humor arises in part from the literally incredible nature of the situation. In a novel this sort of thing is much harder to pull off, and The Woodrow Wilson Dime strained my incredulity muscles. It was also originally published in 1968, but this 1987 edition appears to have been revised very slightly, with mentions of things like Ronald Reagan’s political career that felt jarring and anachronistic to me.
Marion’s Wall is also in part an homage to classic film: in it a couple living in San Francisco are haunted by the ghost of an unsung silent film actress who died at the outset of her career. (It has a hefty dose of the nostalgia/distate for modernity that characterizes so much of Finney’s fiction.) Al though the ending struck me as weak and predictable, I thought it was pretty darn creepy. It wasn’t clear to me if it was supposed to read quite as creepily as it did for me, and I found that disturbing. (I’m trying to skirt spoilers here, but there are some scenes of dubious consensuality and eerie passivity.)
The Night People made the strongest impression on me both times around. It’s devoid of any fantastic elements, but uses as a key thematic element the eerie sense of otherworldliness one can experience in a deserted place that’s usually crowded, like, say, a commuter thoroughfare in the dead of night. (It shares this, although not plot details or characters, with the short story “The Intrepid Aeronaut,” which also appeared in I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.)
The male protagonists of all three novels struggle in various ways with the strictures of monogamy, but in The Night People “monogamy” is most explicitly presented as an instance of “monotony,” the real foe of the two couples who start wandering around in the dead of night indulging in increasingly anti-social and risky behavior. I thought the first few chapters were terrific; Finney has a knack for very specific physical detail which both captures the strange mood of the nightscape and makes it believable. I didn’t think the rest of the novel quite lived up to the opening, and again I found it hard to suspend disbelief a few times. But I liked it pretty well overall.
needs more demons? a lil bit