Ever since James Woods accused Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch of being “the world’s most overhyped Young Adult novel,” back in the pages of The New Yorker in 2014, there’s been an ongoing debate in the literary world about just how much the Great Dumbing-Down of America has or has not reached its tentacles into the normally safe world of intellectualism; I mean, sure, we all just rightly accept the fact that something like American Idol has turned all the usual mouth-breathers into screaming obsessive fans of children’s talent shows despite being fully grown adults, just like the mouth-breathers we already knew they were, but what does it say about the decidedly adult world of the arts and letters when even children’s books like the Harry Potter series are critiqued and promoted as proper fare for grown-ups? How much of that attitude then bleeds over into the books that are legitimately supposed to be just for grown-ups, and how do we even define what a term like “literature for grown-ups” means within a world of endless childhood nostalgia turned into a permanent murky blurring between adolescence and adulthood?
I think about this subject a lot, it seems, anytime yet another “coming-of-age” novel lands in my hands as a book critic, with Jason Rekulak’s The Impossible Fortress being just the latest in a long line of these over the last few years; for to give you the tl;dr version right away, this is basically a children’s book being passed off by Simon & Schuster as an adult one, and as a middle-aged intellectual who enjoys intellectual work designed for middle-agers, it makes me not only disappointed every time I come across a book like this, but despairing over the entire subject of the future of adult literature in this country. Set in the late 1980s, Rekulak’s novel has a cute premise at its core, which is why I decided to read it in the first place: a trio of horny fourteen-year-old boys conspire to steal the infamous Vanna White issue of Playboy from the one and only store in their small New Jersey town that stocks the magazine, namely by one of the boys “seducing” the store’s homely, unpopular teenage daughter and convincing her to pass along the code to the store’s burglar alarm, just for the boy to discover that the girl is a fellow Commodore 64 aficionado and computer programmer, sparking a geek romantic relationship that threatens to make their potentially lucrative erotic heist (they’ve been pre-selling promises of color xeroxes of the White pictorial to other fourteen-year-olds) fall apart before it’s even begun.
But alas, instead of the novel being a story for adults that just happens to nostalgically look back at one grown-up’s childhood, what the definition of “coming-of-age novel” used to be, The Impossible Fortress is instead written in the simplistic language and style of an actual book for children, one that skips decent character development or any kind of adult insight for instead these endless, endless cheap expository references to ’80s pop-culture. (Actual quote from near the beginning of the book: “We all knew that buying Playboy was out of the question. It was hard enough buying rock music, what with Jerry Falwell warning of Satanic influences, and Tipper Gore alerting parents to explicit lyrics.” And stay tuned for a preview of next week’s Basic Cable Nostalgia Pandering Exposition Hour!) It could be argued that the difference is a slight one that’s hard to define, and I suppose there’s some validity to that, of where exactly the line lays between a story for grown-ups that happens to be about a teenager coming of age, and a story specifically for teenagers who are going through that transition at the exact same time they’re reading a book about the phenomenon; but certainly Rekulak is doing himself no favors regarding this question with his plodding, obvious plotline, his half-baked characters who come off as cheap ripoffs of a Netflix cheap ripoff of an overly sugary Spielberg film, and his belief that simply listing things that existed in the ’80s is somehow a decent substitute for story development.
Perhaps that’s the best way, then, that we can mark the distinction between literature for adult intellectuals and literature specifically designed for children themselves; this book lacks any of the fundamentals of story development that we typically use as the benchmarks for critically assessing a piece of adult literature, things like a mature voice and style, surprising turns in the plot, an escalating sense of stakes, sophisticated use of metaphor, simile and symbolism, well-rounded characters who both infuriate and delight, a sense that these characters are learning and growing from their mistakes, etc. Rekulak trades this all in for a hole-filled Encyclopedia Brown story and a thousand instances of, “Hey, do you remember this thing that happened in the 1980s? How about this thing that happened in the 1980s?;” and while I suppose this will sit fine with those adults who are fans of Harry Potter and American Idol, it will leave those seeking out stories for actual grown-ups empty and disappointed, a book with its heart in the right place but that I can’t in good conscience recommend.
Out of 10: 5.8