December 10: “The Billion-Dollar Dream” by Robert Day

Forge on, Story366! You know, I just typed a paragraph about how I was a domestic champion today, regaling you with tales of dishes and laundry and recycling efforts, but after reading it over, remembering that yesterday’s intro involved my extensive day of napping, I decided to delete it, as I can’t think of anything more boring. It’s bad enough I’ve included that kind of nonsense in one sentence here, but a whole paragraph? Am I trying to get people not to read this blog? I’ve got twenty-one days to go and I’m hoping to end with a flourish. Napping and pan-scrubbing is not very flourishy, I think we can all agree.

In coming up with something else, I realized I can fill space this time of the year like any respectable publication fills space this time of year and that’s with year-end Best of … lists. I’m not going to give you the lists today—that’s something I’ll have to think about—but as this project winds down, I suppose I should start thinking of some categories. As every single book this year was new to me (more or less, as I also read from about a dozen books I’d started before but never finished), I can firstly give out this award, the end-of-the-night biggie:

Favorite Collection

I can then break that down into the following two sub-categories:

Favorite Large Press Collection

Favorite Small, Indie, or University Press Collection

While I’m at it, I can focus on this year and previous years:

Favorite 2016 Collection 

Favorite Pre-2016 Collection

I could break things down by my familiarity with the authors:

Favorite Collection by an Authors Whose Work I Already Knew

Favorite Collection by an Author Whose Work I’d Never Read Before

I could also give out some technical awards (perhaps at a ceremony the night before), such as:

Favorite Cover

Favorite Design

I could also make it even tougher and combine these categories, such as Best Design in a Story Collection Released by a Major Press Pre-2016 by an Author I’ve Never Read Before.

I could even release a list of finalists/nominees, the top five in each category, wait a week or so, then announce the winners.

I could invite the nominated authors to my house, have a red carpet up the front walk, and make them come up to a stage (probably our dining room table) and give a speech when they accept the award.  I could get a timely comedian, who also knew some song and dance, to host. I could auction off the broadcast rights to the networks. There could be epic post-awards parties. Vegas could get in on some odds. (Don’t laugh—this is how the Razzies got started.)

Or, I could just do what everyone else does and just list my favorite ten books or so of 2016.

For today’s post, I read from Kansas author’s Robert Day‘s collection The Billion Dollar Dream, out from BkMk. I’ve seen Day’s name before but wasn’t sure if I’d read anything by him yet, so I went into this collection not knowing what to expect. I read a couple of stories, including the title piece, and will write about it.

“The Billion-Dollar Dream” is about this guy named Paul Andrews who puts himself to sleep every night by fantasizing about a being awarded, randomly, a billion dollars. Each night, he adds layers to his story, a complex and long narrative, starting with him receiving a letter to come down to an office as someone has very good news for him. The narrative is so elaborate, Paul doesn’t just go to the office, he first discards the notice and then a couple of nights later, randomly sees it in the trash, crumbled up and stained by coffee grounds, and pulls it out, pieces it together, and reads it. Despite what the title says, this isn’t a dream, but an awake activity, and how tired Paul is when he goes to bed determines how much further into the narrative he gets on any given night.

While awake, Paul leads a relatively normal life, owning a small bookstore with his brother and sister-in-law, where he spends most of his day as a literary enthusiast and merchant. His wife Arlene has recently left him, but the store’s assistant manager, the lovely and intelligent Lilly Frame, is very interested in him. So is his sister-in-law, Janet, with whom he owns the store, whom he used to date before she dated and married his brother Lloyd (which Lloyd may or may not know about). A lot of the waking part of the story involves Janet and Lilly trying to hook Lilly up with Paul, who is kind of oblivious about her crush for a while, though he eventually becomes interested as well.

The story is more often set in Paul’s nightly narrative, however, as he meets the man who is executor to the billion dollars, the story’s author, Robert Day, who read and signed books at Paul’s store just before his fantasy began. The story gets really meta from there, as you might guess, as the character Day serves as Paul’s guide. There’s a trick to this billion dollars: Paul has a certain amount of time to spend it, which is hard because a billion dollars earns over a million dollars a day in interest and investments. Paul also can’t give any money away—no charities, no large gifts—and he can’t tell anyone he knows about the money, nor can they find out about it; e.g., Paul tries to buy bookstores and villas for Janet, Lloyd, and Lilly, but has to return them, as they’d then find out he had the money, which violates the rules.

This plot sound a lot like the Richard Pryor movie Brewster’s Millions, I’ll note, a film I saw when I was a kid when I got into Richard Pryor movies (Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, and Bustin’ Loose used to be on WGN all the time). Day does a lot more with this story than that, though, as there’s a lot of layers around the spend-the-money challenge. First, this isn’t really happening as it did to Pryor’s character in the film—this is all part of Paul’s elaborate night time ritual, all in his head. That’s a vital point: What kind of person concocts this ongoing, elaborate story, just to fall asleep? And what does it say about his psychology that he keeps failing at spending the money, the character Day rebuking him at every turn? Then there’s the author’s inclusion of himself as the guide, which is, as I’ve said, bonified meta. Why did the author include himself when narration would have done the same trick? Finally, every scene in the story is titled by a heading, real straightforward lines like “Janet Decided to Find Paul a Lover” and “You’ll See.” So, yeah, I thought about the Pryor movie when I read this, but Day does so much more with the concept, makes it his own, pulling a lot of literary tricks out to make it really hum.

Getting back to Paul’s psychology, that’s the real key here. Despite his wife leaving him, Paul has a pretty good existence. He owns a successful store where he gets to immerse himself in his books all day. He has a beautiful assistant who is trying to bed him and loving family who is helping her. He doesn’t seem to be particularly poor, nor does he have tastes that would propel him beyond his means. Yet, to put himself to sleep, he imagines himself having to buy all this stuff, and even more peculiar, sometimes he depicts himself as messing it up, forcing Robert Day to chide him. On top of all this, there’s Day’s exotic assistant, Bonita, whom he’s falling in love with and even starts to see in his everyday life, swearing he saw her walking out of his store one day when he emerged from the back room. Is this, like the Manuel Gonzales story from the other day, a metaphor for writing? I think it might be.

Whatever it is, Paul Andrews is a really, really interesting character, a wonderful creation by author Robert Day, and character Robert Day, the lead in a really wonderful and imaginative story. I’m glad I came across Robert Day’s collection The Billion Dollar Dream, from which I read a few really solid stories.