Book review: The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)


Ah, the endlessly expansive possibilities of youth!

There are a lot of things in our younger years that might make us cringe – the lack of knowledge about life, stunted self-awareness, naive belief in the goodness of others – but there’s one thing that we likely still have a fondness for, possibly tinged with regret, and it’s the unfettered belief that there were no limits on what we could do.

It was a giddy feeling, one not tarnished by sage understanding of realty or the time-wrecked weight of disillusion, and it’s captured in beguilingly perfect detail by Jason Rekulak is his 1987-set debut novel, The Impossible Fortress.

So beautifully does Rekulak evoke the idea that anything is possible, that it’s hard not to be swept up by a revival of the idea that life, messy, contradictory, weighed down by routine, can take you anywhere and be anything.

“I would lie to Mary. Not after all the help she’d given me. Not after our sunset walk on the roof, and not after the way she’d touched my hand in the blackout. I knew that something extraordinary was happening and I didn’t have a name for it yet, but I wasn’t going to let Alf or Clark screw it up.” (P. 135)

That’s certainly the spirit that fuels 14-year-old friends Billy, a computer programmer wanna-be with real talent, his friend Alf, who has chutzpah to burn, and yes resembles everyone’s favourite 1987 sitcom alien, and Clark, a drop-dead handsome guy with a deformed hand which means his social looks don’t match up to his movie idol good looks.

But being teenage boys, impelled by the heady early days of puberty, they decide to put all this boundary-less ambition to use by trying to secure a copy of the latest Playboy issue, featuring the aspiring pin-up of the day, Wheel of Fortune‘s Vanna White.

But here’s the snag, a gigantic, dream-stopping snag – the boys are too young to buy a copy, and when they do try to convince an older guy to help them out by buying, he absconds with their money and leaves them right where they started.

Only with way less money and even less opportunities to claim their much-longed for prize.

The only solution? Well, in the minds of three teenage boys anyway? (Alf in particular.) Stage a daring heist worthy of Mission Impossible and take copies, paid of course (of course!) from Zelinsky’s, the local stationery/magazine store in their small New Jersey town.


(image via Simon & Schuster)


Problem solved right?

Well, naturally, nothing is ever that simple, and as this utterly charming, alternately funny and earnest book goes on, you can’t help but fall in love with the way, Billy in particular but also Alf and Clark, won’t let anything get in their way.

Billy however is different to his friends in that his initial zest for obtaining a copy of the venerated Vanna White issue soon gives to something altogether more pure when he meets the daughter of the own of Zelinsky’s, Mary, who is as avid a gaming programmer as Billy – keep in mind too this is the late ’80s when the electronic games industry is in its infancy and the sky’s the digital limit – and nothing like any girl the young aspiring gaming programmer has ever met before.

The plan to get the code to the store, break-in – in their mind, since they’re paying for the magazines, they’re not really breaking the law; odd logic but remember, they are proto-adults, with the embryonic good judgement that implies – and live happily porn ever after, comes a-cropper when Billy realises he likes Mary and wants to be her friend, and work on a new game that could get the attention of a big-name software developer, far more than he wants to see Vanna White’s naked body in its speculated glory.

“That morning was the last time I was ever fully candid with my mother about anything. I talked for a good hour. I told her everything. It was hard to tell the truth, but every detail seemed to revive her, even the embarrassing ones. Especially the embarrassing ones.” (P. 206)

The Impossible Fortress is a delightful read in every respect.

You love everyone in the book, but especially Billy with his kind heart, his earnest ambition and his passion, almost instantly thanks to Rekulak’s gift for capturing the truth of his characters with immediacy and depth, glory in the ’80s nostalgia which, because the kids are living, feels fresh and vibrant, and be enjoyed by the renewed sense of hope rekindled.

That perhaps is the book’s greatest gift, apart from compellingly immersive writing that draws you completely and quickly and never wavers, falters or blessedly lets you go – it’s tapping into and articulation of the kind of passion many of us once had, but which, while not lost exactly, has ended trapped under layers of banal, necessary, sometimes stultifying adulthood.

Through the good and bad, the well-judged and the most certainly not, and a thousand heartfelt emotions – The Impossible Fortress is suffused with adorable, exuberant emotions that remind how good, and scary, it is to be on the enticing cusp of adulthood – Rekulak channels, celebrates and brings to the fore the kind of limitless expectations that make being young such an exciting thing.

The book is warm, bright, alive and giddily possible, an onrushing mix of reality and possibility that leave you happy to have spent time with Billy, his family and friends, and perhaps reminded of the thrill and excitement of entertaining the “what ifs” rather than consigning them to the has-been bin.

Billy, despite everything he’s up against refuses to live there (and he’s got a number of reasons why he should’ve given up now), so why should you? The Impossible Fortress is a wonderfully joyful tap on the shoulder to grab those dreams, tap into some some carpe diem youthfulness and see where it takes you.

Like our young protagonist, you might be surprised by just how far you’ll go.


(image via Simon & Schuster)

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