When I saw that Of Montreal was doing a Tiny Desk Concert I really had no idea what to expect. I mean, it could have been anything. The blurb even jokes that Of Montreal concerts have been described as “wildly theatrical,” “flamboyant,” “synchronized dancing” and having “strange, wandering creatures that look like amoebas.”
So I was absolutely not expecting to see two guys with acoustic guitars and a woman singing a gentle folk song. I actually double checked to make sure I was watching the right show.
Evidently around this time, Kevin Barnes (the man behind Of Montreal) had been working on quieter, more personal work. And so we get these three songs which are, more or less, Barnes solo.
The first song, “Feminine Effects” has the assistance of singer Rebecca Cash and guitarist Bryan Poole. Cash sings the entire song, and it’s quite lovely, if not a little dark.
The next two songs “Imbecile Rages” and “Amphibian Days” are Barnes by himself, strumming guitar and singing. The music is fairly straightforward, although he does throw in some unexpected chords which makes the songs stand out. And, of course, his lyrics and delivery are quirky. His enunciation is peculiar and even more pronounced in this setting.
This is a real surprise for Of Montreal fans, and frankly almost a red herring for anyone new to the band.
[READ: December 31, 2016] The Impossible Fortress
Sarah received an advanced reader’s copy of this book from her friend Mary Lynn and thought I would like it. And boy did I ever. I read this book in half a day. It’s a quick read and while not profound of life-changing, it was really fun and funny–with a fairly dark twist.
There are two major plots in this book and they intertwine very nicely.
The first–the “action” plot–involves the Vanna White Playboy issue. The second–the main character plot–involves coding a video game on a Commodore 64. For this book is set in 1987 in the suburban New Jersey town of Wetbridge. Our protagonists are 14-year-old boys who never really fit into other cliques.
The story is about Billy Marvin. He never knew his father and his mother has started working the overnight shift at the Food Mart to make an extra dollar an hour. Billy’s mom has really high hopes for Billy. But his school life is pretty dismal. His mom believes that Billy is really smart and she tries to get Billy into honors classes. But his grades indicate remedial classes. If he can succeed in these classes he can get moved up. But he does not succeed. At all.
It’s not because Billy is dumb, though. It’s because Billy is really focused on making his video games. He received a Commodore 64 and has learned to write basic code. And he spends most of his nights creating games, Like Strip Poker with Christie Brinkley (there’s an ASCII drawing that is hilarious) and his pride and joy: The Impossible Fortress. It’s a great game with good graphics. But it is slow as molasses and he’s embarrassed by its lag. But his code is elegant and there’s not much he can do to tighten it.
Billy has two best friends, Alf and Clark (I can pretty much guarantee there were no kids named Clark in New Jersey in 1987). Alf is a schemer–not a bad schemer, but he’s always got a plan to make money or get ahead in some way. Clark is a really handsome, hunky kid. But he has a deformity in his hand that has it fused like a claw–which is what they call it. Girls really like him, but he is so self-conscious about he claw that he never talks to them.
They boys spend most of their time at Billy’s house because Billy’s mom is working most nights. They goof off and watch Kramer vs. Kramer (well, they minute and a half with nudity). And then one of the boys learns that Vanna White–America’s Sweetheart, the letter turner on Wheel of Fortune, is about to appear in Playboy! (I was a few years older than these boys in 1987 but I do indeed remember when this issue came out–it was quite a big deal).
The only place the boys can buy a Playboy is at Zelinsky’s. It was a typewriter store but it also sold magazines and cigarettes and that sort of thing. Mr Zelinsky was a gruff man who had no tolerance for shoplifters and was suspicious of everyone. And there was no way he would sell a Playboy to anyone under 18.
So they had to hatch a plan. First they paid someone to buy it for them–but that guy kept them money and ran off.
Next they tried to dress up like older men to buy business supplies and a Playboy. But that’s when things went wrong. Because while he was walking around the store, he noticed a girl in the back typing ona computer She was coding. And instead of buying his fake office supplies, he wound up talking to her about programming and his game. She wound up blowing their (unconvincing) cover when she told Billy about a teen video game programming contest coming up at Rutgers,
Billy doesn’t carer about the Playboy anymore because the grand prize is a brand new computer and chance to meet the head of Digital Arts, the best video game company in the world. And Mary, the girl, is willing to help him make his game better. And after a few days, Billy is smitten. There’s only one problem–Mary is fat and nerdy, so he can’t admit that he likes her.
And that’s where these stories collide. Through the help of a senior who used to work at Zelinsky’s they learn of a secret entrance into the store. If they can get the code to the alarm they can sneak in and take the magazine (but they are (strangely) honest and they plan to pay for it). But how can they get the code to the alarm? Clark and Alf suggest ways that they could seduce the pants off of Mary and get the alarm at the same time. This is foolish of course–none of them even talk to girls, and that’s not really how things work anyhow. So Billy says that he can do it better than the other two. He claims that he will seduce her and get the code. But in fact he will just use their time to together to work on his game which he begins to think of as their game.
Because when he shows her the game, she loves it. But she thinks that if they can learn machine language, they can make it even more efficient and make it run faster. They basically have about two weeks to tweak the game and send it out to the contest. (So he fails school, but he is learning coding).
Billy has lost all interest in the Playboy. He is focused entirely on Mary and the game. She is really smart and really good at coding and they are progressing nicely. They even go to the movies together. Of course Alf and Clark are pressuring him to get the code–they have also been teasing him about liking this fat girl.
But things have gotten more serious because Alf has promised the boys in his school that he can make color photocopies of the pictures and he has been taking pre-orders. He has over $400. So Billy has to come through on this.
Okay so at this point you know that Billy is going to have to make a decision about betraying Mary or betraying his friends. And I loved the way Rekulak handled this by changing the stakes and then upping the stakes even more.
There’s a number of surprises in store for everyone as the story hits the second half. Terrible decision are made by a lot of the characters. This includes riding their bikes fifteen miles to the girls Catholic School at the top of a mountain. It’s made even funnier by Alf’s belief that a) there are plain-clothed priests going undercover to catch sinners and that b) the girls’s school would have an electric fence.
The last act of the book really surprised me. It went in directions I totally wasn’t expecting, And there are some surprising decisions made by some of the characters but which are usually explained well by the end.
I enjoyed the 1987 cultural references. And while I wasn’t a coder, I appreciated the coding jokes and the desire to make a great game. I was made uncomfortable by the way they treated Mary, but I think it is dealt with correctly. And the story overall was really enticing.
By the way, Jason Reuklak is the “publisher” of Quirk Books. I don’t really understand what that means as a job title, but I like Quirk books, so I’ll mention it. I could definitely see this book being made into a film.
And even better is that the coding that you see in the book is actual C64 coding. And he has a playable copy of the game on his website. Go to jasonrekulak.com to play Impossible Fortress (there are no book spoilers, except that you get to see how the game turned out, which isn’t relevant to the plot).
This book is due out In February. The cover above that I received is great–it was so good that I wanted to read it before I even knew what it was about. The cover that I see online is really quite lame. And I hope it was the original design that has been changed to the one above.