The year is young, but I’m making a bold prediction: Jason Rekulak’s debut novel, entitled The Impossible Fortress, will be the best book I read in 2017.
[Yeah, I said it, and I’m standing by it.]
As I think back to all of the books I’ve read during my lifetime, I don’t think any of them has left me smiling as much as The Impossible Fortress, partly because it’s a funny yet touching coming-of-age tale, but mostly because it brought back so many memories from my childhood that it felt like Mr. Rekulak was writing about me and my friends.
In May 1987, fourteen-year-old Billy Marvin and his best friends, Alf and Clark, are social outcasts — Billy is a computer nerd who is on the verge of failing out of school; Alf is short, pudgy, and smelly (bearing an uncanny resemblance to everyone’s favorite Alien Life Form from that era); and Clark is perhaps the most handsome boy in school, but has a birth defect that left one of his hands deformed — yet they have one thing in common with all adolescent boys: a curiosity about the opposite sex. The trio has posters of supermodels on their bedroom walls and rents movies that have nudity in them (knowing the exact location to fast-forward to in order to get their payoff), so when Alf learns that Playboy has published nude photos of Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White, the boys come up with numerous plans to help them secure the coveted issue.
[I’ll take a “Y” for the win, Vanna.]
Their main problem? The only store in town that sells Playboy is Zelinsky’s Typewriters and Office Supplies, whose owner is a no-nonsense grouch who would never sell the magazine to the young boys. After trying various options and striking out, the boys decide to cozy up to Mr. Zelinsky’s teenage daughter, Mary, in hopes that they can somehow use her to get a copy. Unfortunately, Mary Zelinsky is both “fat and ugly,” so none of the boys jumps at the chance to befriend her. After much debate, Billy decides he’ll be the sacrificial lamb and volunteers to do the deed.
But a funny thing happens on the way to seeing America’s Sweetheart in the buff. Billy learns that Mary is not only an avid gamer and programmer on the era’s hot PC, the Commodore 64, but that she’s even better on computers than he is. When Mary tells Billy about a programming contest in which the winning game’s creator receives a next-generation computer with all the bells and whistles, Mary and Billy team up to polish off The Impossible Fortress, a game that Billy started writing but was unable to successfully finish.
The Impossible Fortress starts off as a loving homage to the 80’s with its cultural references to music, movies, supermodels, fashion (I hadn’t thought about Ocean Pacific shirts in a lonnnnnng time), and especially computing, but around the midway point it eschews the earlier references of the era for straight-up storytelling as numerous twists and turns happen along the way.
While The Impossible Fortress reminded me of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a smash-hit from a few years ago, I found Rekulak’s debut to be infinitely more readable and accessible. I would have a hard time recommending Ready Player One to anyone other than an uber-nerd like myself, whereas The Impossible Fortress should appeal to the masses despite its use of coding language during spots in the novel.
This is one of the best books I’ve read in recent memory, especially considering it evoked so many memories and emotions while I read it (more on that after the review). As such, it earns a 10 out of 10 from me, and unless lightning strikes twice this year, I doubt it will fall from the number-one spot on my top-ten list at year’s end. That being said, I have to take a step back and ask myself, “What would the average reader, who may have no ties to the era, think about this book?” In the end, I have no qualms stating that The Impossible Fortress is a book that any fiction lover will enjoy. The score may drop down to an 8 out of 10 if the reader wasn’t a teenage male going through all of the same adventures and pitfalls that Billy and his friends experienced, but at its core, The Impossible Fortress is a coming-of-age novel that is as timeless as other classics in the genre. What more could you ask for as a reader?
That’s the end of the review, so feel free to skip my trip down memory lane and go grab a copy of the book to experience it for yourself. But for the dedicated among you, here are some reasons why The Impossible Fortress struck such a chord with me.
First and foremost, I was an avid gamer during the same time period as The Impossible Fortress. Like Billy and his friends, I spent hours and hours on my best friend’s Commodore 64. Originally we were like any kids with a gaming system – we played a lot of games. Eventually we started dabbling in both BASIC and machine language, creating our own games. I remember one short-and-sweet attempt at writing a Dragonlance game (based on a fantasy series we both enjoyed reading). We created a pretty cheesy title screen that looked something like this:
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[Our attempt at a sword. Back off.]
Unless I’m mistaken, that was as far as we got on Dragonlance. We followed up that award-winner with a wholly original game entitled Destruction of the Gods, which was to be a Zork-like text adventure. We got our graph paper and created a fantastical island, then wrote text that went with each square as well as all of the inputs a player could type into the game to interact with it. I know we did some serious coding on Destruction of the Gods (well, serious for 11-to-12-year-olds), but the only part I remember in detail was a scene I wrote that cracked up my best friend, Casey. In it, the hero was swimming offshore, trying to reach a small island off the coast of the larger island. My paragraph mentioned something about the hero “starting to cramp” from the exertion. Holy shit, did Casey think that was a laugh-riot. Not sure what tickled his funny bone, but I didn’t live it down for quite some time after that. Fast-forward almost thirty years: I’ve been a professional computer programmer for all of my adult life, and it’s not hard to see that the genesis of my passion for coding was making sprites and writing dialogue on that old Commodore 64.
Another scene from The Impossible Fortress mentions a strip poker game that Billy invented. In my case, I didn’t invent a game, but I had a friend, Mark, who had a C64 and access to a strip poker game. Mark wasn’t supposed to play it (the game was his father’s), but he knew how to get it. One day we pilfered the floppy disk (I said “disk,” folks), locked ourselves in the office, and started playing. After getting the female down to her pixelated bra and panties, we heard a rattle in the office’s keyhole, after which the door swung open. Mark quickly shut off the monitor as his mother came in, but it was written all over our faces. I blew out a rush of air, and then Mark’s mother asked, “What’s wrong?” I responded with, “Ohhhhh, nothing. You just startled us is all. Nothing going on in here.” Riiiiight. She walked to the computer, ejected the game, gave us the look all disappointed parents give their kids, and stormed out. We were just like the Hall & Oates song…”Soooooo close, yet so far away.” Doh!
And last, while I was too young to know about Vanna White’s Playboy appearance in ‘87, I had my own experiences with being young and trying to sneak peeks at the opposite sex. My first brush with Playboy was one year further out than Billy’s, but at age fifteen I somehow got my hands on an issue with the Swedish Bikini Team in it.
[Good Lord in Heaven.]
I also knew which movies had brief scenes of nudity, such as Swamp Thing (one of the movies alluded to in the book), Airplane!, and Sixteen Candles. Was this juvenile behavior? Absolutely. But there isn’t a young teenage boy in the world who hasn’t been through similar situations, whether they’ll admit it or not.
All of which is why I’ll reiterate my earlier review: read this book, especially if you were a child of the 80’s. You’ll have an absolute blast with The Impossible Fortress.
Until we meet again…