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The right message

I've been talking lately about some possible rewrites to my unfinished manuscript, "Bill Roman Is Being Oppressed."  If you haven't been reading those posts, the short version is this: I wrote most of a comedy novel about a delusional, wealthy narcissist named Bill Roman who visits / annoys his home town, a failing ex-mining town in West Virginia, but then gave up on it a couple years ago when I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do with it.  Now that Trump's in office, I've been thinking about picking up where I left off and turning it into a quasi-satire on our current political climate.

There's a lot of challenges with that.  For one, there's the fact that most people, regardless of their beliefs, don't want to read something that'll come right out and talk about politics.  That's a subject we all universally hate to talk about.  It's exhausting, isn't it?

And then there's the challenge of keeping the experience fun.  I write books first and foremost because I enjoy the process.  If a book ever starts to annoy me, or I just feel unpleasant, I'll give up on it.  So, I can't just go at it whole hog and make it a big, "I hate this person!!!!" diatribe or I'll end up feeling cranky all the time.

But the hardest part right now is trying to figure out exactly how to make it say what I want it to say.

There's two layers to it.  First of all, every story has values and messages, regardless of whether or not you want them to be there.  That's just part and parcel of art.  But then on top of that, I'm talking about turning "Bill Roman" into something with an intentional message.  Leaving aside whether people think it's preachy or not, I need to make sure everything I'm saying is accurate.

The story is about a failing town called North Haven that's plagued by unemployment, drug problems, and stubborn pride.  Right off the bat, I have to worry about whether or not people are going to think I'm making fun of this town, and by extension, their town.  North Haven isn't supposed to be a punch line.  It's supposed to be a place with very real troubles and hardships, a place that's been devastated by greed and apathy.  I want the story - and the reader - to have empathy for this place, to want to see it overcome its demons.

The obvious reading is that North Haven is a red state town, a place where anger and resentment are rising because the system has failed.  (But make no mistake - it could just as easily be Baltimore, the blue state city I love to live in even though it has its share of horrors.)  And Bill Roman, a guy who has no actual problems but who nevertheless insists on presenting himself as a victim, is obviously read as Trump.  If I was going to be a cynical asshole, the ending would be something where the people of North Haven elect Bill as their mayor because they've misread his petty victimization as empathy.

But that's no good.  First of all, it's too obvious.  I'd like to think I can write with a slightly lighter hand than that.  More importantly, it's the wrong message.  An ending like that implies judgment.  An ending like that is one that would make me seem like some jerk standing off to the sideline, folding my arms and going, "Yeah, the people of North Haven are fucking idiots and now they're all going to overdose on opioids."  Who wants that?  Who am I really going to be helping or making happy?

My goal isn't to throw blame at North Haven.  I want them to be people who are capable of standing on their own two feet, but who just need rich and powerful people to lend a helping hand for once instead of finding new ways to screw them.  The problem isn't that North Haven is stupid - the problem is that they're being exploited.  Bill Roman is just another in a long line of idiots who wants to use North Haven for his own purposes, only his is the most superficial and selfish of all.

If "Bill Roman" is going to work as both a political discourse and a comedy, it needs to be realistic, hopeful, and at the same time, funny.  That's reeeeeeeeeally hard to figure out.

It can't just end with some miraculous "our town is saved!" horse shit.  And I don't want to pull one of those nonsense "We're all wrong" South Park endings where the different surrogates shake hands and pretend there aren't very clear winners and losers.  Most of all, it needs to end with respect for North Haven and its people.

What I want is to tell a story to the people I'm writing about where I can say, "Listen, I know you guys have it rough, and that's absolutely a problem.  You fueled our economy for years and we can't just take that for granted.  We owe you our support.  At the same time, you can't let modern day aristocrats distract you by blaming your problems on groups that had nothing to do with the economy.  Responding to failure with hate just makes everybody miserable.  The only thing you can do is change.  Those jobs you spent your life chasing are not going to come back, not the same way you had them before.  That doesn't mean you give up, it just means you have to find a new path.  Let's work together on that.  Let's give you the resources you need, the education, the investment, whatever it takes, to find a new industry that'll support your town.  You can't hold your head up high when you're constantly holding onto a promise of the past.  You can honor your history while still marching forward, and that's all any of us want in the first place."

So, yeah, I need to make an ending that says all of that, but not directly, and while also being funny, and while also wrapping up Bill Roman's arc.

I'm stuck on ideas at present.  For that matter, I think our country is, too.