Reviewed by Jose Nateras.
At the start of Steve Wiley’s first book, The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan, the author introduces the reader to Richard K. Lyons, who is an unhappy man living in a Chicago simultaneously familiar and fantastically alien. Successful in many ways, in others Richard is a mess; he has some obvious substance abuse issues and is in the midst of a self-destructive spiral. It’s at this point that he stumbles upon a young homeless girl he can almost remember from a night long ago, when he was just a boy called Rich. She takes Richard on a journey into his long forgotten childhood and beyond as he remembers an adventure they shared one night, decades before.
Wiley manages to craft a story that, just like the world he creates, straddles two worlds—those of a miserable, disaffected adult and the wide-eyed boy he once was, along with the cold, urban metropolis of Chicago and the fantastical, fairy land of his fictional “East Side” of the city. Even in terms of the language, Wiley achieves an almost storybook-like vernacular, similar to what one would find in a children’s book, while exploring ultimately adult experiences, often with the sort of adult language one definitely wouldn’t find in a children’s book. All of this, combined with twists on Chicago history and fantastical insights into uniquely Chicagoan phenomenon, such as the reason Malort tastes so bad, make for an entrancingly magical journey that’s half Midwestern Miyazaki, half Mad Men, and all Windy City.
While engaging throughout, there are a few times when the spiraling narrative can be hard to follow. Moving through time, memory, senses of reality, and various narrators and storytellers, can and does disorient the reader. This sense of disorientation occasionally works, however, resonating with both Richard’s drug-addled headspace and the younger Rich’s daze of wonder as an outsider in the fantastical, fairy-realm of Chicago.
Illustrations by Chris Cihon augment the story throughout. Visually reminiscent of the sort of drawings a young person might make in sketchbooks or the margins of their homework, the images also add to the feel of Wiley’s novel as a sort of storybook for adults. It’s easy to imagine young Rich subconsciously remembering Francesca and the adventures they shared, drawing such pictures until the images faded away from his memory.
For many adults, the realization that one’s childhood is firmly in the past can be a sad one. The sudden notion that we are no longer the children we once were can make people look at the current state of their lives and the world around them, and ask: how did we get here? Would a younger version of ourselves be proud of the life we have? It’s so easy to lose the wonder with which we saw the world as children, to forget to look at our lives and appreciate the wonder that is there, just beneath the roar of the ‘L’-car rushing by and bills that need to be paid. Overall, Wiley’s The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan provides a fun exploration of such themes and is a worthwhile read for any grownup Chicagoan who used to love reading fairy tales as a kid.