» Book Review
Moving Beyond the Boundaries
The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak
Simon and Schuster, 2017
285 pages, hardback $24.00, paper $18.00
Writing a computer program and writing a novel share certain characteristics. Both involve using an established alphabet, syntax, and set of concepts. What separates truly great computer programs from serviceable ones might be the same thing that separates the great novels from the rest of the pack: a creativity that moves beyond the boundaries of what a reader or user expects. Jason Rekulak’s The Impossible Fortress does just that, taking the familiar elements of coming-of-age novels and injecting wit, pathos, and a helping of nostalgia. A tribute to outcasts and geeks and an unabashed love letter to the 1980s, The Impossible Fortress is a compelling and humorous first novel.
Set in Wetbridge, New Jersey, in 1987, the story is narrated by Billy Marvin, a computer nerd and pop-culture connoisseur. The child of divorce with a mother who works night shifts at Food World, Billy spends his days debating best friends Alf and Clark about the hot issues of the day. Who would win in a fight? T. J. Hooker or MacGyver? Springsteen or Billy Joel? Children of the 1980s, obsessed with Pop-Tarts and Atari, they take these conversations seriously, a fact which explains their fascination with Wheel of Fortune letter-flipper and 1980s it-girl Vanna White.
This schoolboy crush becomes a real-world obsession when White appears in Playboy. Billy, Ash, and Clark turn their world upside down in an ill-fated quest to secure a copy of the illicit magazine. Were this set in contemporary America, the boys would simply Google search the images or check Reddit. In 1987, they must result to more nefarious scheming. Their plan involves shoplifting a copy of the magazine from Zelinksy’s, a local newsstand and office supply store run by Mr. Zelinsky, who seems to be channeling Kurtwood Smith from That ’70s Show. A curt and dour manager/owner, Mr. Zelinsky sees through the boys’ attempt to shoplift, but when Billy meets Mr. Zelinksy’s daughter, Mary, the plot takes off. Initially, the boys plan to use Billy to seduce Mary and get the store’s alarm code so they can break in to steal the magazine after hours. Plump, chubby Mary is an object of scorn for our resident would-be porno bandits. However, when Billy gets to know Mary as a person, he learns that, like him, she is an expert computer programmer. The two collaborate on The Impossible Fortress, a game they design for a national competition. As Mary and Billy’s relationship grows, the boys make promises they can’t keep and wind up enlisting the help of high school bad boy Tyler Bell, whose role in the story is much larger than the novel first suggests.
As the affable and well-written prose moves forward, we learn that the real impossible fortress is adolescence itself, a hormone-fueled time that finds young people paradoxically living in the moment while planning for their future. Rekulak handles teen emotions well. We believe not only in Billy’s emotions, but we also believe that he believes them. Billy is an authentic character, one drawn with emotional weight and depth. His growing concern for Mary is undercut by his own ambition, and, as the plot moves towards its inexorable ending, readers witness his transformation from a boy whose world ends at the tip of his nose into a young man who understands the weight of his choices.
Each chapter begins with a snippet of BASIC computer programming, the rudimentary pieces of Mary and Billy’s game. A fully-playable version is available on Rekulak’s website (http://jasonrekulak.com/), rendered in cheesy, faux-8-bit graphics. This touch rounds out the book’s absolute love for all things 1980s, from Rubik’s Cubes to video rental stores, from cheesy TV to school bullies drawn from CBS after-school specials. Nostalgia can be dangerous for a writer. With too much of it, a story becomes mushy and syrupy, wallowing in details rather than advancing the plot. However, in Rekulak’s capable hands, the world becomes an extension of the characters. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine Billy existing elsewhere, with his un-ironic earnestness and honesty.
Writers and critics sometimes fetishize “newness,” quoting Ezra Pound’s closing-on-century-old advice, “Make it new.” That drive to make all things new denies the fact that writers have been telling different versions of the same stories for years. Have we seen coming-of-age stories before? Of course. Have we seen paeans to the 1980s before? Yes. However, we’ve never heard this story before told by this character at this moment. Like a computer programmer, first-time novelist Jason Rekulak takes the elements and assembles them. In his creative hands, the parts transcend into a beautiful whole.