What do you do if you’re the mayor of a small Missouri town that has been hit hard by decades of gradual economic decay and whose highway in and out of the city’s center is now known as “Old 54” since the new Highway 54, a vital transportation artery, now snakes around your fair city, leaving your diminutive, but proud populace, and its neglected factories that used to assemble computer chips and automobile parts, miles away from economic stability? Well, you can schmooze with a company chief looking to build a new hog processing plant, promising to match the conditions of all bids, plus whatever it takes to bring the new plant to your city, as the mayor of Pridemore, Missouri, Roe Tolliver, does in the opening pages of Stephen Roth’s flat-out funny new novel, “A Plot for Pridemore.” When that inevitably fails, you do what any savvy small town C.E.O. would do in today’s go for broke, whatever-it-takes culture, you fabricate a massive media event to bring instantaneous attention in the hope of translating that brief, yet intense limelight into dollar bills.
Disgruntled after the hog plant failure, Roe Tolliver plops in front of the television and randomly chooses a dusty VHS tape from his collection, a made-for-TV docu-drama titled “The Baby Allison Story.” As he watches the unfolding events, the miraculous six days it took to rescue two year-old Allison from a well in Prairie View, Ohio, the mayor gets the first tickle of an idea, but then his eyes widen when he sees Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings – the three major newscasters of the time – live at the scene and the voiceover announcement that, “Soon, the world was at Prairie View’s doorstep,” and later learns how this rural Ohio town became an off the beaten track tourist destination for recreational vehicles and continues to generate tourism income even today, twenty years later. Tolliver stays up until two in the morning drinking Budweiser longnecks and hatching a similar plan for Pridemore.
Mayor Tolliver privately pitches his idea to a small cadre of prominent Pridemore citizens. “You see, small towns hold a sacred place in the hearts of Americans, particularly those who’ve never lived in one.” Despite some grave doubts, the mayor pushes the top secret plan forward, using the guise of creating a state park around some meager caves near Pridemore. However, the park idea simply establishes the proper igniting circumstances for the carefully constructed media extravaganza the mayor has up his sleeve. In the middle of the night Tolliver and a cohort break into the home of Digby Willers, a 280 pound man-child whose diminished intellectual capacity makes him an easy pawn in the mayor’s plan, and convinces Digby to enter the cave and search for suspected bombs that were planted by terrorists. Once inside, a ballistics expert from a southern Missouri militia, paid in cash and under the table, detonates an arsenal of dynamite that collapses the entrance to the cave, trapping Digby, thus, setting the stage for the grand media spectacular! Of course no one knows that Digby has been stocked with enough Power Bars and water to ensure that he remains conscious throughout the ordeal, and a two-way radio for communication with the mayor.
First on the scene is Pete Schaefer, a hungry and idealistic journalist, stuck in his first newspaper job at the Pridemore Evening Highlight, and who has begun an affair with his boss’s high school daughter. His original plan of using the Pridemore newspaper as a brief launching pad to a larger newspaper has been put on permanent hold; he’s stuck. He spends his off days writing sardonic cover letters to Kansas City and St. Louis newspapers explaining his dismal situation. “Please help me,” he writes. “… I feel ready to work at a real newspaper,” and mentions that he’s 1/10th Cherokee Indian in the hopes that his might sway nervous editors who answer to a diversity quota.
While the novel is set in the regional no-man’s-land of central Missouri, the pokerfaced protagonist, the eccentric supporting cast of characters and madcap atmosphere of the novel reads much like the humorous strain of Southern fiction that writers such as Clyde Edgerton, George Singleton and James Wilcox have elevated to a distinctive literary genre. Stephen Roth, a Georgia native who has lived in Missouri for twenty years, delivers an enthusiastic novel that is urgently plotted and hilariously reveals the sparkling nuances of living in a small rural community.
The ensuing drama that propels the second part of the novel is a whirlwind of subterfuge, media jostling and various cast members blindly stepping in their own mess. When one of the mayor’s henchman asks him how he’s going to handle the very probable possibility that, once rescued, Digby will divulge the true story of how he ended up in the cave, the mayor replies, “Don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out, won’t it?” And when Digby is heard obsessively singing songs by Dakota Marx, a post-teen pop singer who has been recuperating from “exhaustion” for nearly a year, Dakota is reluctantly drawn into the mix by his business manger because this primetime news story is clearly an opportunity for Dakota to piggyback off of Pridmore’s fifteen minutes and promote his own career. What would have been preposterous twenty years ago is today a no-brainer, straight from a public relations playbook: Dakota flies to Missouri to put on a benefit concert of sorts for the still buried Digby.
Dakota bangs into Digby’s favorite song “All Right Soon,” a mucky pop ballad whose lyrics suggest that the true hero of the novel will soon rise. “And I’ve got a funny feelin’,” Dakota sings to Digby through the cave walls, “Things’ll be all right soon. All right soon. All right soon…”