The Impossible Fortress: A Novel, by Jason Rekulak
The Impossible Fortress is a YA book in the John Green tradition set in the 80’s, when personal computing was in its infancy and every computer owner was almost required to be a programmer as well. Before the Mac and IBM PS2 the reigning home computer was the Commodore 64. It was less expensive than the other two competitors and used EGA graphics which allowed for a nice color range.
Billy Marvin is in 9th grade, the son of a single-mom who works all night and sleeps during the day. Any spare time not spent with his two best friends is spent programming new games on his Commodore 64. As the book opens one of his friends breathlessly announces that Vanna White has appeared in Playboy, which sets the action in May 1987. To them, and much of America at the time, she was the icon of wholesome beauty. The three 14-year-olds are determined to score a copy of the magazine in some way. The only store where the magazine is sold in this small New Jersey town is the local office supply and typewriter repair store owned by Mr. Zelinsky. Their attempts to get an older person to buy it ends up getting them ripped off. When they try the casual approach (dress older and buy other things, asking to toss in the magazine near the end of the purchase) they announce that they’re buying supplies for a computer gaming company. Zelinsky’s daughter Mary overhears and tells Billy about a computer gaming contest to be judged by one of the major names in the industry. The prize is an IBM PS2.
Because they don’t feel like they can buy a Playboy in front of Zelinsky’s daughter they leave empty-handed again. The friends then develop an involved plan to get the security code for the store, break in at night, leave money on the counter, and walk out with magazines. Billy is assigned to “romance” the number out of Mary and over the next few weeks he develops a strong relationship with her while his friends continue to complicate the plan.
This is a debut novel and reflects the time pretty well. I would have been about 15 years older than the characters in the book but could identify with the urge to buy Playboy (I had a friend who at 16 looked 20, and would dress up and wear dark glasses to buy copies from a neighborhood store) as well as the fascination with the new technology that had amazing potential but was also very expensive, even for today’s standards. My first computer was an IBM clone made by Kaypro with a 10 megabyte hard drive and amber monitor that put me out $1500 in 1980s dollars. The laptop I’m working on has a 500 gigabyte drive and cost half that in 2016 money.
The plot takes a few sad and complicated turns. Telling nearly any of it would act as a spoiler. I can say the story turns on whether Billy has been sincere in his feelings or has been simply using Mary to get the code. It’s a well-worn story line but Rekulak carries it off well. If anything the plot, and the plan created by the teens, is more complicated than it needs to be for a good story. There are good slices of the time the action takes place, when the only way to communicate by email is through an expensive CompuServe account and small towns were still small towns, even in a state like New Jersey. I’m in my 60s and I enjoyed it and was teary-eyed at the sad parts. It’s a fun book and I think anyone who went through the time as a teen would get a kick out of it. Younger readers on GoodReads rated it pretty high as well. I don’t know if this is the next John Green, or if we need one, but it will be interesting to see what he produces next.