The Im­pos­si­ble Fortress by Jason Reku­lak, 285 pages, Si­mon & Schus­ter

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Jason Reku­lak is the pub­lisher and ed­i­to­rial idea man at Quirk Books, the small Philadel­phia im­print that brought us Seth Gra­hame-Smith’s (and Jane Austen’s) 2009 mon­ster-mash-up Pride and Prej­u­dice

and Zom­bies. This is Reku­lak’s first novel if you don’t count the books he’s writ­ten un­der pseu­do­nyms, for, among oth­ers, the young-adult fan­tasy se­ries Tales From Love­craft Mid­dle School. The Im­pos­si­ble Fortress, too, is about young adults but de­signed more for adult read­ers, say Gen­er­a­tion X and older, es­pe­cially those prone to nostal­gia over their own prob­lem­atic ado­les­cence. Pop cul­ture seems to have con­cluded that there wasn’t a bet­ter decade to be a male ado­les­cent than the 1980s. (Full dis­clo­sure: This writer was not a teenager dur­ing any year of that decade; and the bet­ter-decade judg­ment ap­plies only to the usual race and class de­mo­graph­ics.)

It’s 1987 and both four­teen-year-old Billy Martin and home com­put­ing tech­nol­ogy are on the brink of change. Billy’s world is cen­tered on floppy discs, cas­sette tapes, and bikini mod­els. He and his bud­dies travel by dirt bike and, like the guys in the clas­sic de­pic­tion of young male ca­ma­raderie Stand By Me (a film set in 1959, but re­leased in 1986), they walk rail­road tracks and share a cig­a­rette. The most im­por­tant ’80s totem in the tale is Billy’s Com­modore 64 home com­puter, a prize awarded his mother in a bank give­away. Sec­ond most im­por­tant goes to the May 1987 is­sue of Play­boy mag­a­zine fea­tur­ing a photo spread of Wheel of For­tune host­ess Vanna White.

Billy is a New Jer­sey latchkey kid. His un­kempt room is pa­pered with posters of Elle Macpher­son, Kathy Ire­land, and other mod­els. His sin­gle mother works over­time at Food World, and she is con­vinced Billy will die young. At school, he’s a hall-locker wall­flower. His grades aren’t good and get even worse once Billy be­comes ob­sessed with learn­ing code and de­sign­ing games on the Com­modore. His best de­sign is “Strip Poker With Christie Brink­ley,” a so­phis­ti­cated ex­er­cise — Billy fig­ures out a way to pro­gram bluff­ing — but back­ward in its vis­ual graph­ics, the pro­gres­sively re­vealed su­per­model imag­ined in back­slashes and punc­tu­a­tion marks.

Se­cur­ing a copy of the Vanna White Play­boy is­sue be­comes an ob­ses­sion for Billy and his un­der­age friends. True to the go-go eco­nomic times, they sell color copies of per­ti­nent pages they don’t yet have to friends for a fee. In a tes­ta­ment to Ms. White’s mar­ketabil­ity, they col­lect $400 but lose it to an older ac­com­plice they so­licit out­side a store with be­hind-the-counter Play­boys and, unknown to the boys, a back en­trance. They aren’t de­terred. Dressed in over­sized suits and poorly tied ties, they go into the of­fice-sup­ply store with a news­stand where their prize is just out of reach be­hind the reg­is­ter. As Billy goes around the store as­sem­bling an un­likely pur­chase of of­fice sta­tionery, he meets the owner’s daugh­ter, Mary, who is sit­ting be­hind her own Com­modore. The two share com­put­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and sto­ries about the clue­less in­struc­tors of their high school com­puter classes. Af­ter Billy ca­su­ally says that he didn’t think girls liked pro­gram­ming, Mary gives him a les­son. “Girls prac­ti­cally in­vented pro­gram­ming,” she en­thuses, be­fore nam­ing off a list of women in­volved in the first com­put­ers. As Billy checks out, ask­ing for Tic-Tacs and a Play­boy, Mary rushes out with a trac­tor-pull, dot-ma­trix printer copy of rules for a big high school pro­gram­ming com­pe­ti­tion. Grand prize is an IBM PS/2, a sig­nif­i­cant step up from the Com­modore. The judge is Fletcher Mul­li­gan, a god among young com­puter pro­gram­mers. Billy leaves with­out the Play­boy but with his fu­ture in hand.

Still schem­ing, Billy’s bud­dies urge him to win Mary’s confidence and gain the store’s key code for an im­prob­a­bly imag­ined break-in, even as they tease him about Mary’s size. Reku­lak presents fat-sham­ing and the ob­jec­ti­fy­ing that goes on among pubescent boys as Billy’s in­ter­est turns from Vanna to Mary. Com­pli­ca­tions arise when their friends — who, af­ter all, pur­chased the prom­ise of Vanna Xerox copies — want their money back, money Billy and his bud­dies no longer have.

Each chap­ter of the book starts with code ex­cerpts, maybe the first time com­puter lan­guage has served as metaphor. The book has a fair dose of hu­mor that comes of em­bar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tions com­mon to com­ing-of-age sto­ries. But its themes are se­ri­ous and carry con­tem­po­rary im­pli­ca­tions. While men­tions of Jolt Cola, Phil Collins, and Com­puServ make for au­then­tic­ity, not ev­ery­thing that hap­pens res­onates with a decade known for law and or­der. It’s hard to ac­cept that thiev­ery and van­dal­ism would go so lightly pun­ished, even as it’s seem­ingly ex­plained away in some­thing of a sur­prise end­ing. A stint in ju­vie might be more be­liev­able. But don’t worry. It’s not in the pro­gram. — Bill Kohlhaase

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