Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Billion for Boris

1974, two copies, both possibly second edition, from Harper Trophy
Mary Rodgers
A Billion for Boris
Probably bought newish, for $1.50
Both copies in terrible condition, but I've held on to them because of the Edward Gorey artwork

Annabel, her brother Ben AKA Ape Face, and her (boy)friend Borris AKA Morris are back.  Yes, considering his allergy, the real title might actually be A Million for Morris.  When this got made into a relatively obscure movie in 1984, they adjusted for inflation and called it Billions for Boris.  I've seen it once and it wasn't bad.  It's funny to find out that SNL's Tim Kazurinsky cowrote the screenplay and played Bart the reporter Annabel helps.  Ape-Face (hyphenated on IMBD) seems to have been the big-screen debut of Seth Green, yes, before he was a young Woody Allen in Radio Days, before his kid-genius role in the Willy/Milly (which is sort of the Freaky Friday of teen transgender comedies, only with just one body being changed), and the same year as his appearance in The Hotel New Hampshire.  So Billions would definitely be worth watching again.

As for the book, I find it about on a level with its predecessor.  There's definitely more plot, and an equally wacky premise, although I suppose a TV that predicts the future is more dated than switching bodies with your mom.  I'm not sure how they handled this in 1984, when Boris could've have just taped the shows Ben wanted to see and let him watch them upstairs.  A decade earlier, there was more of a distinction between "live" and "dead" programming.  Even the whole form of broadcasting has changed, thanks in part to the Internet.

But it's 1974.  And Annabel and Boris face the question, what would you do if you could predict the future?  (Or at least as much of the future as is going to be shown on TV, and with only 24 hours' notice.)  Boris wants enough money to change his eccentric mother's life.  In Freaky Friday, he said he hated her because she only cares about money.  Now, a year later (sort of, I'll get to that), he admits he loves her and she doesn't care enough about money.  She's irresponsible and her craziness is driving him crazy.  He doesn't need billions but tens of thousands would help.  So he bets on horse races.

Meanwhile, Annabel, good liberal and future journalist that she is, wants to help people.  Unfortunately, many of her good deeds go wrong.  I can still remember first reading the part about a supposedly kidnapped coed turning up safe with her boyfriend in Vermont-- "According to the Burlington chief of police, it was a case of 'seduction not abduction.'  Very droll fellows, those Vermonters"-- the wordplay and sophistication of that, which I didn't get as a preteen.

In some ways Annabel and Boris seem older than they are, like when they celebrate the Kentucky Derby with champagne.  And yet, although she loves him and thinks he might love her, their own relationship is far from seduction.  They hang out a lot in his apartment, not always chaperoned by the Ape, and I don't think they go further than him kissing her on the forehead.  For her birthday, he buys walkie-talkies, which she decides is more romantic than a ring or a bangle because more exclusive.  (Not if he buys multiple sets.)

It's her 14th birthday, on Friday, April 12th.  That puts this book in 1974.  (Well, it could be '68, since Ape Face likes to listen to "Yellow Submarine," but that seems a bit early for the enviromentalist themes in both books.  And there wasn't another April 12th on a Friday again till '85, which is far too late.)  Setting the book in the year of its publication seems reasonable enough.  But wait.  The events of Freaky Friday are supposed to have taken place in February of the previous year.  When Annabel was 13.  But if she was already 13 in February '73, she can't be turning 14 in April '74.  This has bugged me for over 35 years.  I have three possible solutions:
1.  Ignore it (but that's impossible)
2.  Pretend Annabel was 12 in Freaky Friday
3.  Pretend Annabel turns 15 in Billion
Of the three, I prefer the last, especially because of Bart.

When Annabel tries to prevent an explosion, she meets a cute reporter.  He's 24 and she pretends she's 18, although he immediately sees through that.  She actually goes to his apartment, in order to tell him she has ESP and can help him find news.  Nothing romantic happens, but she does lie to her best friend Virginia that she's having a romance with him, so Virginia will cover for her if Annabel's parents call.  And then later, Bart falls in love with Virginia!  Did she lie to him about her age?  It's unsettling for a 14-year-old to be dating a 24-year-old, and it would be marginally better if they were actually 15.  Or if Rodgers had left that part out.

There's always that weird blend of innocence and sophistication in Rodger's young-YA books.  Similarly, there's the issue of Boris's mother, Sascha.  When Annabel thinks she's the maid, Sascha tells Annabel that Morris's mother is "crazed."  It's unclear if she's as unresponsible as Boris/Morris thinks.  She does end up saving the day, with the money from a sold screenplay, when Boris's Derby bet goes wrong.  But it is genuinely scary when Boris thinks he's gotten them deeply in debt, and when she throws the new lamp at the new coffee table. 

Earlier, Boris shakes Ape Face till the little kid's teeth rattle, because Ape Face has lost them the Box (magic TV), so Annabel socks Boris in the jaw.  It's an intense, violent moment in what is otherwise a frothy read.  It's played for humor but it is disquieting.

Ape Face is both catalytic and off to the side in this book compared to before.  He fixes Boris's broken-down old set far beyond expectations, but he doesn't want to use the Box to affect people's lives.  Boris seems to find Ape Face more annoying than in Freaky, Annabel less so, except when she's caught in a snowstorm that he mysteriously knew about.  Ape Face does help Annabel comfort a younger kid, who he figures out must be a girl because no boy would have his hair so short.  (Again, it's 1974.)

Annabel's parents are also less prominent, her father in particular.  Her mother is taking courses at Columbia, which gets her out of the way during the scheming.  Feminism is more taken for granted than in the earlier book, as when Annabel assumes that she'll be a traveling journalist and hubby Boris will have to cook at least some of the time.  (He's better at it anyway.)

By the time of Summer Switch, Boris is an ex and Annabel is in college.  Ape Face is 12, no longer a cute little kid.  So it's of the series but less linked than these first two books are, like FF and BfB are siblings, Summer Switch a cousin.  (And Freaky Monday, which Rodgers cowrote in 2009 is a very distant relation.) 

As with Freaky being a project for English, this book is supposed to be a long account for (fictional) Barron University's Dept of ESP and Parapsychology.  The professor who replies says they're very interested in the Box, but his wife thinks it's fiction and should be submitted to "her old friend, Ursula Nordstrom, Senior Editor at Harper & Row."  That slightly in-joky, very New-Yorky touch is part of the fun of Mary Rodgers at her '70s best.

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