The Rebranding of Billy Bailey
Interzone, August 2000
Boy, it's great to sell this one. I wrote it in a weekend while stuck
in a hotel room in Montreal, while I was doing work for an ad agency.
I'm afraid the ad business has a tendency to encourage a degree of
The original title of this story was "From Heel to Babyface and Beyond: The Re-branding of Billy 'Beetle' Bailey," but it got truncated during a couple passes through both my home workshop and the Gypsicon gang.
Billy and Principal Andrew Alty went all the way back to kindergarten, when Billy had convinced Mitchell McCoy that the green fingerpaint was Shamrock Shake, and watched with glee as the little babyface had scarfed it all down. Billy knew that Andrew Alty knew his style: refined, controlled, and above all, personal. Billy never would've dropped a dozen M-80s down the girls' toilet. His stuff was always one-on-one, and possessed of a degree of charm and subtlety.
But nevertheless, here was Billy, along with the sixth-grade bumper-crop of nasty-come-latelies, called on the carpet in front of Andrew Alty's massive desk. Andrew Alty was an athletic forty, a babyface true-and-through, and a charismatic thought-leader in his demographic.
This story is purely satirical, and it maintains its clever and inventive pace throughout. Billy Bailey is a sixth-grade kid, and a heel, a professional heel; that is to say he maintains an image as a class prankster and brat. And he has an agent to handle his endorsements and help maintain his image. But when a hostile principal and a slimy but rich fellow student frame him for a clumsy prank unworthy of his style, he decides it's time to change. It's time for rebranding.
This stuff is over the top, of course, like all satire. But it's successful because it's played with a perfectly straight face, and because the story is thick with details that buttress the theme and keep the reader smiling and grimacing: the sponsored grade school classes, the worry about competing with 8th graders when you graduate to 7th grade, even the well-chosen character names. This is very well-crafted, very entertaining, very satisfying story.
Billy Bailey was the finest heel the sixth grade had ever seen -- a true artisan who kept his brand pure and unsullied, picking and managing his strategic alliances with the utmost care and acumen. He'd dumped BanginBumpin Fireworks (a division of The Shanghai Novelty Company, Ltd.) in the fourth grade, fer chrissakes. Their ladyfingers were too small to bother with; their M-80s were so big that you'd have to be a lunatic to go near them.
But sixth grade was the Year of the Hormone at Pepsi Elementary. Boys who'd been babyfaces since kindergarten suddenly sprouted acne, pubic hair, and an uncontrollable urge to impress girls. Their weak brands were no match for the onslaught of -osterones and -ogens that flooded their brains, and in short order they found themselves switching over to heel.
As a result, the sixth grade was experiencing a heel glut. Last year's Little Lord Fauntleroys were now busy snapping bras, dropping textbooks, cracking grading computers, and blowing up the girls' toilets.
Hormones. They made Billy want to puke.
Andrew Alty gave them his sternest stare, the one over the top of his half-rims that was guaranteed to reduce a fourth-grader to tears. The poseurs alongside of Billy shuffled their feet nervously and looked away. Billy struggled to control his anger, and to meet Andrew Alty's stare with his tried-and-true antidote, a carefree, mischievous grin.
"Ten thousand dollars," Andrew Alty said, for the third time. "What will your parents say, I wonder, when I tell them that it will cost ten thousand dollars to replumb the girls' change-room? Boys, I wouldn't want to be in your shoes when that happens. I imagine that it will go very hard for all of you." He treated them all to another megawatt of stare.
"But I didn't do it!" wailed Mitchell McCoy, who'd gotten a Blue Ribbon in the fifth-grade Science Fair for a consumer research report on relative inflammabilities of a range of allegedly fire-proof blue-jeans.
The other standout is by the 2000 John W. Campbell Award Winner for Best New Writer, Cory Doctorow. "The Rebranding of Billy Bailey" is a very clever and funny story which takes an off-kilter notion and plays it for all it's worth. Billy Bailey is a 6th grader who specializes in being a "heel", or a class brat. The thing is, that's a commercial decision: he has an agent, his Dad is his VP Operations, all his pranks are decided on the basis of how they will affect his media profile, etc. The story revolves around a prank which gets blamed on him unfairly, and which will affect his "brand". Perhaps he needs a new brand? This is consistently funny, and the satire is consistently on target. I really liked this piece: in my opinion, it's the best story so far by an already very promising new writer.
Andrew Alty looked at him. "So you say. You may be telling the truth. No way to find out, though -- not unless we bring the police in to fingerprint you all." The emphasis he put on "police" and "fingerprint" was admirably subtle, Billy thought. He actually liked Andrew Alty, most of the time. The man had a good, strong brand, and he tended it most carefully. "Of course, once I involve the police, it will be out of my hands. It will be a criminal matter." Again, just the lightest breath of emphasis on "criminal." Billy had to hand it to him.
"It goes without saying that if any of you know how I could resolve this without involving the police, I'd be glad to hear about it. Why don't you take a moment to think about it?"
The boys shuffled their feet. A few of them choked back sobs. Finally, Mitchell McCoy swung an accusing finger at Billy. "He did it! I saw him sneak in with the M-80s, and matches! He told me if I said anything, he'd beat me up again!"
Billy had seen it coming. Mitchell was almost certainly the culprit -- every science-fair project he'd ever done had involved blowing something up or setting something on fire. And Mitchell had nursed a grudge for an entire year, ever since Billy had sent him into the mud during an autumn game of tackle-tag, and then sent him back again and again when he tried to rush Billy.
He stared coolly at Andrew Alty. Billy could practically see the wheels turn in his head. Mitchell McCoy's parents were overbearing, with a hands-on approach to Mitchell McCoy's academic career that often sent one or both to Pepsi Elementary on the pretence of helping out with a bake-sale or fun-faire. Fingering Mitchell McCoy for the Incident would surely call down their interminable wrath. Andrew Alty turned his gaze on Billy. "What do you say to this?"
I think the best short story Interzone published this year
was "The Rebranding of Billy Bailey" by Campbell Award
winner Cory Doctorow. I also discussed this story in the
Locus essay mentioned above. It's clever satire about
school kids commercializing their images, and it works
Unfortunately, Andrew Alty was considering the source -- and the source's high-octane-pain-in-the-ass parents. "That's all you have to say, son?" he said, with deadly seriousness.
Until I speak to my agent, it is, Billy thought, and kept mum.