October 2003

Matt Williamson

fiction

Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss

It’s a moving testament to my childhood’s dreariness that video games feature prominently in so many of my warmest early memories. To a precocious, antisocial and unathletic only child (and latent misanthrope) languishing in the suburbs of a series of progressively duller cities (Dallas, Fort Worth, Denver), “real life” was something to be endured between hits of Mappy and Pengo, Zaxxon and Galaga. The ugly supermarkets and prefab fast-food restaurants that dominated my boyhood landscape were redeemed only by the arcade games they housed. Trips to Safeway promised doses of Ring King and Popeye. 7-11 meant Rastan and Sinistar. Pizza Hut meant Donkey Kong Jr. and -- best of all -- Journey.

In my lowest moments, Bagman, Pac-Man and Pack Rat were more than cheap sources of joie de vivre: they were my raison d’etre.

You get the point: I was a fucking geek. Still am, of course -- though not the same kind. At 14, after I was fired from my first job (reviewing video games for the Scripps-Howard news syndicate), I sold off all of my Nintendo cartridges, bought a black leather jacket and a copy of Doolittle, and the rest is history.

In the intervening years, I haven’t spent much time weighing Food Fight’s personal significance, much less its cultural importance. So I was struck, while reading D. B. Weiss’s witty and inventive debut novel, Lucky Wander Boy, by the degree to which video games have shaped my consciousness -- and my generation’s.

Balding, thirtyish Adam Pennyman is our hero here. A disgruntled copywriter at a (justly) doomed dot com, he passes his days fantasizing about disemboweling his boss, sneaking sips from the liquor bottle hidden beneath the paperwork in his desk drawer, and imagining himself as the star of a video game called Copywriter!—tedious but notable, nevertheless, for its “startling visual and auditory realism.”

Weiss’s descriptions of Pennyman’s insipid, bureaucratic work environment will be queasily familiar to any reader unfortunate enough to have occupied a cubicle at any length. Chagrined pop junkies, meanwhile, will share and appreciate Weiss’s spleen at the coarseness and stupidity to which so much of contemporary culture has been reduced, and the ways “irony” has been abducted and perverted by soulless pricks. [Among the awful web shows for which Pennyman is required to write teasers is “Invasion T.M.H. (Trainably Mentally Handicapped): They’ve got their eyes on world domination, and their pants full of poo! This edgy, hilarious new animated show from Portal gives political correctness the finger! Come check it out . . . but mind the drool!”]

At night, Pennyman ignores his hectoring girlfriend to work on his magnum opus, the Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments. Less a consumer’s guide than a philosophical treatise, the Catalogue is his encyclopedic attempt to decode the symbols and uses of low-tech Reagan-era diversions. (“My comparison of Berzerk to The Castle by Franz Kafka was unique,” he congratulates himself, “as was my take on the dialectic between purpose and aimlessness in Sinistar.”)

The Catalogue also provides Weiss with his best gimmick, as long excerpts from Pennyman’s manuscript are routinely incorporated into the novel whole. Pennyman’s riff on Donkey Kong is a giddy highlight:

It is difficult to ignore the similarities between Donkey Kong (the creature) and the demiurge of the Gnostic heresies. The Gnostic sects -- pre-Christian, early Christian, Jewish Kabbalist -- shared a belief in the fundamentally corrupt nature of this physical world and the despotic God or demiurge who ruled over it, the one they knew as Ialtabaoth and we know as Jehovah . . . . . . The fourth century Hypostasis of the Archons tells us that the demiurge “contemplated creating offspring of itself” after seeing its new dominion, and did so shortly thereafter: “It engendered for itself authorities . . . the second is called Harmas, the eye of fire . . . .” (Apocryphon). And so Donkey Kong sends down a spark of his evil in the form of a blue barrel that ignites the fuel drum behind Mario, giving birth to sprites of living flame that will continue to scourge Mario through all four levels of the game.

These sprawling analyses lend Lucky Wander Boy much of its currency—explaining, in part, why the book has already become a minor cult phenomenon. In discussing Tempest, for example, Weiss -- via Pennyman -- finds occasion to observe:

If horror films can be seen as the nightmares of our culture, it makes sense to view video games as our lucid dreams, the ones in which we are given the luxury of taking arms against the transfigured, pixellated seas of our troubles and doing battle with the creatures that wait for us in their depths.

The book is also filled with passages from screenplays characters have written or imagined, credibly illiterate office correspondence, and a preposterously grisly and sadistic Chinese novel called Leng Tch’e (another of Weiss’s inspired inventions). While keeping things lively, these sharp shifts in tone and voice also give the author a chance to show off his considerable skill as a ventriloquist and humorist.

For Pennyman (and, one suspects, Weiss), these old video games aren’t just mindless distractions, but somehow represent the distilled essence of his childhood -- even his identity. In playing the games and drafting new entries for his Catalogue, Pennyman is going back in time, searching for the clues that will help him answer the nagging question: why is his life such a meaningless drag?

One game in particular obsesses Pennyman: the titular (and fictitious) Lucky Wander Boy. As a teenager, Pennyman once spent weeks on end playing the game at a local arcade -- only to have the plug pulled, and the machine removed, just as he was about to enter the game’s elusive third level. In a weird spin on Humbert Humbert’s coitus interruptus theory, Pennyman speculates that had he experienced that third level of Lucky Wander Boy as a youth, he might gained some essential insight that would have fundamentally altered the course of his adult life.

Much of the novel thus follows his quest to find a functioning Lucky Wander Boy unit (most were destroyed in the mid-80s, after the game belly-flopped at the arcades) and to protect the game’s legacy from his parasitic boss, Krickstein, who’s just optioned the Lucky Wander Boy movie rights.

Weiss’s novel is not without its flaws. Some of the satire -- particularly the stuff playing on Pennyman’s girlfriend’s appetite for trash TV and celebrity gossip magazines -- is threadbare. And while Weiss’s observations on the smoke-and-mirrors dot-com economy aren’t off-the-mark, neither are they particularly timely. (A recurring setpiece involving an ultraviolent game called Eviscerator -- a parody of the Mortal Kombat series popular in the early 1990s -- is similarly stale.) Finally, sheer pettiness compels me to report that Weiss twice commits what has become an irritatingly common error: confusing the words “bemusement” and “amusement.”

But these are minor gripes about what’s otherwise a remarkably appealing and accomplished first novel. Weiss’s prose -- perhaps necessarily, given the subject matter -- is always lean and unpretentious. His descriptions of the games themselves -- like his portrayal of the twilit world of geeks and dweebs -- are both meticulously detailed and deadly accurate (right down to the misspelled MAME file names and surreal arcade cabinet art). And while his sense of irony is as keen as his ear for dialogue (page for page, Lucky Wander Boy is one of the funniest books of 2003), he also demonstrates a refreshing loyalty to his characters (and their dorky obsessions) that lifts Lucky Wander Boy above novelty status.

In its final chapters, which take Pennyman to Osaka for a rendezvous with Lucky Wander Boy’s mysterious creator, the book -- like the game -- reveals itself to be something quite unexpected. In the case of the game, that something is . . . well, you’ll just have to find out for yourself. In the case of the book, though, it’s a bona fide Novel of Ideas.

Ambitious but never obnoxious, Lucky Wander Boy ultimately benefits from its author’s willingness to confront the biggest of Big Issues: to ponder, as Scott Stapp has done so eloquently, “What’s this life for?” Unlikely as it may seem that the answer to this timeless question is “Playing video games,” Weiss’s strange and often magical novel doesn’t rule the possibility out.

Lucky Wander Boy by D. B. Weiss
Plume
ISBN: 0452283949
288 Pages