The Impossible Fortress
The Impossible Fortress, the fiction debut from Jason Rekulak, also a publisher, is the first-person story of Billy, a smart, nice-natured and befuddleable 14-year-old living in “the Armpit of New Jersey”.
The late-’80s world of Billy and his friends Alf and Clark is one long slumber party: “We watched hours of TV, we blended milk shakes by the gallon, we gorged on Pop-Tarts and pizza bagels until we made ourselves sick,” he tells us. They “had passionate debates over who would win in a brawl: Rocky Balboa or Freddy Krueger? Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel?”
The novel depends on a textured construction of American childhood nostalgia, often signalled by pop cultural products expressed through proper nouns. These kids talk about brands of cola that readers will remember from their youth or, for Australian readers, from the very good films of their youth.
Alf, Billy and Clark are misfits. “Nine months ago, the three of us arrived in high school and watched our classmates dive into sports or clubs or academics. Yet somehow we just orbited around them, not really fitting in anywhere.” They have unlikely get-rich-quick schemes and believable flaws. Meanwhile, an adult and possibly dangerous world symbolised by older, cooler teenagers occasionally seems accessible, but is mostly out of view.
The plot begins when the boys discover Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White has explicit images in the new issue of Playboy, and undertake an inspired mission to obtain a copy. But the innocent horniness of American boys coming into pubescence has been sketched so fondly, and so recently, by so many movies, books and TV shows that I wondered whether this novel could have done more with its accomplished set-up. It’s a cogent world and a shapely story, very easy to relax in, but much of it is too regressive, even untroubled.
A good stretch in the middle of the book is relaxing in a different way – not like watching a movie when you know the story by heart, but like being a kid with your whole life stretched out before you. This is when Billy meets Mary, an unusual girl who is great with computers, and they spend their days designing the video game that gives the novel its title. Towards the end, this situation grows enormously complicated, but there is room for the world it disturbs to be more complicated already. CR
Faber, 304pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 15, 2017 as "Jason Rekulak, The Impossible Fortress". Subscribe here.