I felt like the luckiest kid in ninth grad. My friends Alf and Clark came over every night, eager to celebrate my new found freedom. 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. We played marathon games of Risk and Monopoly that dragged on for days and always ended with one angry loser flipping the board off the table.
We argued about music and movies; we had passionate debates about who would win in a brawl: Rocky Balboa or Freddy Krueger? Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel? Magnum P.I. or T.J. Hooker or MacGyver? Every night felt like a slumber party, and I remember thinking the good times would never end.
But then Playboy published photographs of Wheel of Fortune host Vanna White, I fell head over heels in love, and everything started to change.
Boy oh boy is this novel a fun one. Rekulak has written a novel purely focussed on the nostalgia of a single even in the late 80s and the actions of a group of friends. And it took a bit of investigative work on my part. This book is set almost 10 years before I was even born so I needed to research who Vanna White even was for a start, which inevitably ended up with searching for her Playboy cover. And you can kind of see why these boys would want to get their hands on it if you search it yourself.
The plot is following this group of boys who really want this magazine, but the local shop owner won’t sell them one because they’re not 18. So what’s the logical solution? Steal it, of course. They plan to do this by seducing the shop owner’s daughter, Mary, in order to get the keys so they can sneak in once they’ve shut the shop. This goes about as well as you think it would.
What I love about this book is the nostalgic feeling that comes from reading it. Even though I wasn’t even alive in the 80s I get the feeling of the old computer suite with big computers that use floppy disks. There’s music references and television and film references which are so nuanced and impressive that it really gives a feeling of the era.
But what I love most about this is Rekulak’s character arc for Mary Zelinsky. She is slowly becoming one of my favourite female characters in literature the more I think about her. She’s a young girl who loves computer programming. There’s not many books that talk about girls doing this traditionally masculine job and I adore it. She’s incredibly smart with that, and actually knows more than Will, the protagonist, who is sent to try and seduce her for the keys.
It’s really amusing with Mary because the boys are so cruel to her initially. They call her names because she’s a large girl, and Will feels as if he has drawn the short straw. But if he hadn’t they wouldn’t have started to programme together to create a game called The Impossible Fortress, that they plan to take to a gaming competition together. The beauty of this is that Will starts to develop feelings for Mary, and vice versa, and they become very close. The boys simply want their Vanna White Playboy photos but Will is more concerned about maintaining his friendship and potential romance. This creates a conflict in the novel that a lot of young people face when they develop crushes; do you stick with your friends or try and make things work?
This novel is full of so much humour as well as sadness. There’s a great camaraderie between the boys and their humour plays off of each other incredibly well. Towards the last third of the novel there is a turn that you don’t expect coming and it throws you off balance when you are so sure you know what’s going to happen.
Rekulak has managed to encapsulate so much of what I love about coming of age stories with humour and a balanced sadness, interesting well developed characters, and intriguing plot lines that overlap and undercut each other with dexterity. I’m definitely going to be keeping any eye out for more from Jason Rekulak in the future, as should you.