Until May 1987, fourteen-year-old Billy Marvin of Wetbridge, New Jersey, is a nerd, but a decidedly happy nerd.
Afternoons are spent with his buddies, watching copious amounts of television, gorging on Pop-Tarts, debating who would win in a brawl (Rocky Balboa or Freddy Krueger? Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel? Magnum P.I. Or T.J. Hooker?), and programming video games on his Commodore 64 late into the night. Then Playboy magazine publishes photos of Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White, Billy meets expert programmer Mary Zelinsky, and everything changes.
A love letter to the 1980s, to the dawn of the computer age, and to adolescence—a time when anything feels possible—The Impossible Fortress will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you remember in exquisite detail what it feels like to love something—or someone—for the very first time.
By the time I finished writing The Impossible Fortress, a few of my friends decided I was losing my mind. Before I can tell you why, you need to understand that I’m a fairly private person. I keep my creative pursuits to myself. So with the exception of my wife, I never told anyone that I was writing a novel based on my experiences growing up in 1987. It was just something I did in my extra hours, for fun.
I spent two years writing the book–and for most of that time, I listened to pop music from 1987. At first I would just listen to the songs via Youtube, but at some point I heard about Spotify, so I logged on and created an account and started building a playlist.
Naturally I included all of 1987’s most enduring and timeless pop songs: “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2, “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure, and “Luka” by Suzanne Vega.
But the songs that really worked for me – the ones that truly transported my imagination back to 1987 —were the songs you never hear on the radio, the songs that have aged terribly. These are songs that anyone with good taste will describe as “cheesy.”
The most obvious example is “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley but my playlist had dozens and dozens more: “The Final Countdown” by Europe, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston, and pretty much everything by Richard Marx.
I listened to this playlist nonstop, always discreetly via my Apple iPhone earbuds. To the casual observer on the street, I want to believe I resembled just another urban sophisticate listening to Adele’s 21 or the new Mumfords album. But in truth I was rocking out to George Michael’s duet with Aretha Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).”
This went on for maybe six months. Then one day after work, my friend Mike asked about my obsession with Debbie Gibson. I stared at him in astonishment. He reminded me that we were Spotify friends, and he’d noticed I was listening to Debbie Gibson every day.
At that moment, I realized that – in my haste to build my Spotify playlist – I hadn’t fully reviewed the privacy settings. And so for the past few months, Mike had been monitoring my listening habits and concluding that I had somehow lost my mind.
I quickly put the blame on my kids – “They’re always messing with my damn account!” – then ran into the nearest restroom, took out my cell phone, and fumbled through the Spotify menus until I found a way to keep my settings private. Crisis averted! Then I went to catch the subway home. As I waited for the train on the platform, I popped in my earbuds and resumed listening to the 1987 playlist. “I think we’re alone now,” Tiffany sang, and I thought to myself: I sure hope so.
My thanks to Jason for the entire Spotify playlist of earworms he has just delivered to me. I’ve currently upped the Whitney Houston, Cure and U2 ratio on my music rotation as a result. Were you a child of the 80’s? Do you have a love/hate relationship with Men Without Hats? What songs of the 80’s routinely make your playlists?
The 1980’s are experiencing a kind of resurgence at the moment.Between the return of Full House to Netflix and the obsession that is Stranger Things (Justice for Barb!), people are looking back on the 80’s with full nostalgia. The Impossible Fortress is the perfect book to turn to once you’ve exceeded your streaming limit, and it will keep you laughing about the clueless-ness of teenage boys, the wonder of the early years of video games and the comparative innocence of the 1980’s.
The book is narrated by Billy, a typical 80’s teen boy in many respects. He has his best friends, his obsessions (in this case, computers and video games), and a fascination about the opposite sex without any knowledge of how to act on said fascination. When Billy and his friends Alf and Clarke find out that there is a special edition of Playboy with pictures of Vanna White, they are determined to get their hands on at least one copy, and thus their plan for acquisition is born. Central to the success of their plan is the idea that one of the boys will romance Mary Zelinsky, the daughter of the store’s owner, and obtain the secret security code necessary to break in after hours. All goes awry, however, when Billy slowly begins to realize a few things: (a) that Mary is a waaaaay better coder than he is, (b) that if he and Mary combined their talents, they could win the very important upcoming video game competition and (c) he really kind of likes Mary, and maybe he isn’t as interested in the Playboy magazine as he was before.
Reading about Jason and his friends was like taking a time machine back to my own teenage years. The author’s character voices are incredibly authentic, and their conversations could have been lifted from my own classrooms. As Billy spends more time with Mary, he discovers that she is tough, funny and smart, and that he may just be falling for her. Never having had a girlfriend before, his insecurity and inability to communicate how he feels to Mary is a little heartbreaking in its sincerity, and I’m sure that every reader will empathize with Billy’s confusion. The conversations that Alf, Clark and Billy demonstrate that unique intimacy that is the teenage male friendship, complete with insults, derogatory comments, single-minded determination and goofy behaviour. Alf and Clark, unaware of the direction of Billy’s feelings, become even more determined to obtain the elusive Playboy magazines, and their plans verge on the ridiculous with the complications (tiny dogs named Arnold Schwarzenegger factor into their thoughts).
Full disclosure: I was a teenage girl coder in the 1980’s. From 1985 onwards, I went to computer camp on school holidays, I had a Commodore 64 in my basement and my friend and I programmed our own interactive version of the Babel Fish translator (miss you, Douglas Adams). I’ll confess to falling down a 1980’s rabbit hole because of this book, and I’ve enjoyed revisiting the music and tv shows of the time (China Beach! Kate & Allie!). While I may not have attended Catholic school or been in her (ahem) exact predicament, I could relate to Mary and her abilities. She was the smart kid caught in an untenable situation, and I could see how her love for her father conflicted with her own grief and needs. I could also understand why she couldn’t be upfront with Billy, and while his reaction was extreme, it was also fitting for someone who had never had his heart broken before.
One final quick note about the issues of bullying and fat-shaming present in the book. Often it’s difficult to look at a book set in a different time period that is not so different from our own without the lens of present-day to colour what we read. Yes, Billy, Alf and Clark make jokes about Mary’s weight and another character’s disability. Yes, hurtful things are said and these definitely count as bullying behaviours. It wasn’t okay in the 1980’s just as it isn’t now … but the reality is that it happened and it wasn’t addressed like it is today. The bigger issue present in the story (no spoilers!) would have been a greater topic of interest and discussion at the time, and I found that Rekulak portrayed all of these issues with honest realism.
At the end of the day, while this might seem like a light-hearted story about three goofy teen guys and their rather insane quest to obtain a Playboy magazine, there’s more to it than that. The Impossible Fortress is a story about dealing with disappointment and loss in our lives and that point when we realize we will inevitably let down the people we love. Billy knows that his decision to design video games will disappoint his mother and his teachers even as he has his heart broken by Mary. Mary knows that her actions have caused her father great pain, and that she will have to face the truth about her actions sooner rather than later. In fact, all the characters discover that there’s a fine line between the truth we tell ourselves and the actual truth; the true sign of growing up is being able to acknowledge the difference.
It’s a pretty great story, this tale of friendship and first love, of capers and coding and revenge and all the best and worst of our teen years, wrapped up in a classic 1980’s bubble. It finds that perfect spot between childhood and adulthood, and reminds us all about those final joyful days of being a teenager, just before the sobering reality of the future raises its head. Oh, and one last wonderful note: the game of The Impossible Fortress is actually available online at Jason Rekulak’s website. Much like the book, you won’t be able to leave it alone.
A copy of The Impossible Fortress was provided by Simon & Schuster Canada. It is available for purchase today from your favourite online, independent or general bookseller. ISBN: 9781501144417, 304 pages.