A few months ago, I reviewed Matthew Amster-Burton’s 90s-set novel Our Secret Better Lives and remarked that “some of the experiences the college-age characters have seem like they belong to a time as far removed from 2016 as ancient Greece.” Well, The Impossible Fortress goes back even further, to the far-off world of 1987. That spring, nude photos of “Wheel of Fortune” letter turner Vanna White appeared in Playboy magazine, sending young men across America into a tizzy. If you didn’t have an older brother or “cool” uncle who could buy the magazine for you, you were out of luck. There was no World Wide Web yet, and thus no way to Google “Vanna White” +Playboy to find those precious pics.
In the town of Wetbridge, NJ, only one store stocks Playboy: Zelinsky’s Typewriters and Office Supplies. Unfortunately, the proprietor is a stickler for the rules, and is not about to let a bunch of 14-year-old boys buy a copy. So Billy Marvin and his two best pals, Alf and Clark, embark upon a series of schemes to try to get one. After failing miserably, they come up with a long-shot idea: Billy will attempt to get close to Zelinsky’s chubby daughter Mary in order to talk her into revealing the store’s alarm code; that way, they can break into the store, take some magazines, and leave a $20 bill behind. No harm, no foul, right?
Mary, who is Billy’s age but attends a Catholic girls’ school, turns out to be a genius-level computer programmer, and Billy is also fascinated by computers, so the two form a genuine bond as they start working on a game called The Impossible Fortress. The goal is to submit it to a contest sponsored by Rutgers University, which is offering a prize of an IBM PS/2 (“With a sixteen-bit processor and a full megabyte of RAM”).
Sometimes, The Impossible Fortress is just a bit too cute (a scene in which Billy battles obstacles in an attempt to get a message to Mary at her school is structured like a video game), but fellow Gen X’ers who were into computers back in the days of CompuServe and “Trash-80s” will no doubt have feelings of nostalgia throughout. I kind of wish the book had featured an “Animal House”-style epilogue showing what happened to all the characters; as a young teen, Billy may have been a screw-up with poor grades, but the triumph of the nerds was just a few years away.