Posted on January 5, 2018
Book Review: The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
When the marketing team at Simon and Schuster were calculating the target demographic for Jason Rekulak’s first novel, The Impossible Fortress, I’m sure they didn’t segment it directly to “romantic-at-heart mid-to-late 40’s computer nerds who are impossibly stuck in 70’s and 80’s nostalgia”, but maybe they should have. We may be a small bunch, but we are also the perfect group to enjoy this book on multiple levels and to spread its’ gospel.
So I shall try my best to do just that.
I heard nothing of this book before I saw it on trade-paperback rack near the electronics section of my local Target back in November. On whim, I picked it up, and turned to the back-cover where I read the words “A love letter to the 80’s, to the dawn of the computer age, and to a time when anything felt possible“.
I asked my wife to pick-it-up for me for Christmas this year, as I tend to enjoy having an retro-infused, palate-cleansing, escapist novel or non-fiction tome to savor between the Christmas and New Year’s day. It’s just the thing to put the year to bed and wake-up to new one around the corner.
The story opens with the narrator Billy and his friends as they attempt to obtain, by any means necessary, the overarching McGuffin of the first 2/3 of the book: a copy of a May 1987 issue of Playboy magazine featuring Vanna White. There is a bit of “Porky’s” vibe here that I was not expecting. Taat vibe continues as we are introduced to Billy’s custom programmed Commodore-64 computer game “Strip Poker With Christie Brinkley” complete with some pretty authentic ASCII art. It would be easy to dismiss the book at this point as being an exploitative and trite. While the “Vanna White” set-up is mildly engaging, I did not expect this quest to continue for a so much of the book, and I was a bit disheartened as it dragged on and on. As Billy and his friends get ever deeper into this quest, it entangles and threatens to strangle the narrative. At times I almost quit reading, disheartened that the book had a such seemingly weak frame from which to hang a story.
However, the narrative soon takes an unexpected turn, and we learn that Billy doesn’t really care much about the nudie pictures. His real passion is programming, and his real quest is to finish programming a game named “The Impossible Fortress” on the Commodore-64 to win an upcoming contest sponsored by the software company Digital Arts (an obvious stand-in for Electronic Arts) so he can become a real game programmer. Eventually, while still in guise of obtaining nude picture of Vanna White, Billy meets a fellow programmer named Mary, and together they work to finish his computer game.
This is where the real story begins. When the book focuses on the growing intellectual and physical attraction between Billy and Mary it comes alive. In fact, every page that is spent on this budding relationship the is glorious. I could have read 500 more pages of it and it would not have been enough. While the initial Playboy McGuffin quest in The Impossible Fortress was not something to which I could directly identify with, Billy’s passion for programming and his quest to finish his game was unlike anything I’d ever seen on page before. At the same time while I wasn’t too keen on the MCGuffin, the interactions with Billy and his friends rang true in these passages, as did the general sense of being on an illicit adventure, outside, right under the nose of the adult world.
This is another thing The Impossible Fortress captures in amazingly accurate detail: The attempt of 80’s kids to, at the same time, master both the outside physical world, and the birthing gasps of virtual one of computers and video games. These two combined elements hit me square in the gut. Together they formed a real world in which these characters could live and breath. I know that world existed once, because it still bounces around in my head every single day. I could have easily dismissed this book because of it’s seemingly trite opening pages, but I’m glad I stuck around, as I was rewarded greatly for seeing the story through.
Maybe it helped that I could identify with the protagonists. I’d been on similar physical and intellectual quests in the 80’s. Not for nudie photographs have you, but similar to Billy, to find a way to make my own “game programming dreams” come true. For instance, my brother and I spent the summer of 1982 trying to locate winning game pieces for the McDonald’s Atari Scratch And Win game. Like Billy we were aspiring to write our own video games, but we didn’t have a computer. The McDonald’s Atari contest was offering one as a grand prize, and we were sure we could win it. We’d hike or ride our bikes to the nearest McDonald’s and spend hours scouring tables, gutters, and trash cans looking for unused game pieces. We must have dug through two tons on McDonald’s trash searching for an elusive prize. However, aside from winning an intense distaste for McDonald’s food, we never saw even small French Fries prize, much less the Atari 800 home computer I wanted and coveted so much.
Furthermore, the book basically takes my entire teenage life and wraps it into a compelling narrative. There is poverty, computers, video games, high school outcasts, nerds, New Wave music, good friends, Catholic School girls, and John Hughes movies plus, like I alluded to earlier, the best portrayal of a a self-taught teenage bedroom coder I have ever read. My favorite detail was that, as written, Billy is not a computer genius at all. He’s not the scary hacker or a socially inept loser who can’t tie his own shoes but dreams in code. He’s much more realistic. He is self-taught enthusiast who caught the programming bug and dreams of making games for a living by turning the stories in his head to pixels on the screen.
And I also suspect, he is also part author Jason Rekulak.
There is no way the author could have such exacting insight into that kind of character without having first hand knowledge. Billy is not a caricature of an 80’s kid written by committee to hit multiple demographics and story beats. He’s a living and breathing person that comes alive on the page. He must have existed in some corporeal form, otherwise he could not exist as written. It’s that simple. Billy has a completely 80’s, “dawn of computer age” mindset that can’t be obtained through osmosis or studied in books or movies. As far as I can tell, he’s not cribbed from another source. He’s a complete and new creation in that he feels like an actual being and is quite a literary achievement.
The technicals in the book are kept to a minimum, but they are also seriously right-on. Each chapter is prologued with a little piece of code. The REM statements tell you all you need to know, but if you dig further you can see that the code looks pretty legit. I was never a user of the Commodore 64, but since it’s based on the same 6502 processor as my beloved Atari 800, it was easy for me to understand the lions’s share of the BASIC code presented. All those PEEKs and POKEs feel accurate, even if I didn’t have time to look them all up to see if they do indeed work as intended.
There were a few slight issues. The timing felt “off”, as setting the book in 1987 felt a bit late to me. I would have preferred it be year or two earlier, as “Pretty In Pink” and The Commodore Amiga would have been better details IMHO than “Some Kind Of Wonderful” the IBM PS/2, but that is totally splitting hairs. Marketing is also an issue. I realize an 80’s home computer nostalgia fueled and filled romp with a smattering of YA is probably a tough sell. However, I never saw any kind of promotion for this book in any of my usual virtual or physical spaces. And I’m no stranger to these kinds books. I’ve read nearly ever fiction and non-fiction book in the subject area over the past 30 years. I’ve attended the YALLWEST festival with my kids two years running, and this would have fit perfectly in that setting, but I didn’t notice it if it was there. If I did not chance by it on that rack at Target, I would have missed the book and life would be that much less complete.
How do we rectify this?
Where is the market for this kind of writing? I want more, and I want it now.
The Impossible Fortress was a great read. Even with it’s mild shortcomings, I still loved nearly every goddamned page.
PS: You can play a version of game from the book here.