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