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October/November 1998
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The Unholy City, by Charles Finney, 1937

Heilar-Wey is a futuristic city, where mile-wide boulevards are transversed by ninety-mile-an-hour taxicabs, where thousands are killed every hour in catacylsmic traffic pile-ups, where a newspaper is produced every fifteen minutes to report on the armed struggles between the elderly and the unemployed. Yet like an Escher drawing the city folds in on itself, the vast metropolis at the mercy of a single escaped tiger, which is invariably causing havoc (and rubbernecking tie-ups) the next neighborhood over.

When Finney is remembered it's for The Circus of Dr. Lao, a Bradburyesque collision of small town Americana and a mythological sideshow. The Unholy City was Finney's follow-up, and it abandons the familiarity of small-town life for a plunge into surrealism: in Heilar-Wey, the contemporary and the mythological aren't separated by the bars of sideshow cages. We explore the city in a single evening, from the perspective of two travellers: the Falstaffian Vicq Ruiz, who, experiencing a premonition of his own death, is intent on one last revel in Heilar-Wey's nightlife, and the oddly passive narrator, who lends Ruiz money and tries to keep him out of trouble. The two hurtle through the city in taxicabs, drinking, chasing women, and skirting enlistment in the unemployment wars. They also constantly buy newspapers to track the depredations of the tiger—and for the crossword puzzles.

Finney's book has the texture of an allegorical dream. The present, it suggests, is a collision between a crushingly indifferent future and a primal mythological past. His two misfit travellers would be troublemakers in a gentler place, but in Heilar-Wey they can only cling to their notions of fate and romance, try to avoid traffic accidents, and keep out of the path of that tiger.

—Jonathan Lethem

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