by Emily Schultz
illustrated by Nate Powell
Published by ECW Press
296 pages, 2006
The Summer of '84
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
Toronto writer and editor, Emily Schultz, found the perfect framework in which to create her coming-of-age novel: a video arcade about to fade into history in June of 1984. Ask most teens to describe their idea of hell and it would probably resemble the book's setting, South Wakefield, a rust-belt town where the action is so nonexistent even getting run over is a challenge. Tammy Lane, a precocious 11-year-old, spends much of her time spying on her adored 14-year-old brother, Chris, and occasionally on her neighbors, while up a nearby tree. She has also been known to lurk, to stalk and to eavesdrop. Summer is almost here but the news that the town's only video arcade, Joyland, is about to close, has cast a pall over the town's youth. I mean, like, what else is there to do in this dump?
In the first few chapters and with many deft strokes, Schultz creates the world of the video arcade and shows readers how important the venue is for defining and shaping its participants. Through their skill with games like Galaga and Donkey Kong, they prove themselves, they control their world, and they interact with each other. By choosing a time frame when home computers were taking over from video games and the entertainment centers that offered them, Schultz is able to introduce a yawning vacuum into which she drops her youthful characters. Frightened at the potentially endless emptiness ahead of them this summer, Chris and his friends stagger into their holidays. Who are they if not Pac men? Where will they hang out? South Wakefield probably doesn't even have a 7-Eleven. This is no small crisis; South Wakefield offers few other distractions: a parade, the possibility of a dreary job, swimming, a few boring sports, the odd party, What's a guy gonna do besides drink, try to score drugs, smoke and check out the action?
So Chris does what any 14-year-old youth does whenever he runs out of things to do: he lusts. The object of his carnal obsession is Laurel Richards, a streetwise video queen who never even asks him to hold her roach clip.
Until the party, that is, when the two of them head up to Marc's bedroom to play a few rounds of Atari. Marc is Chris' best friend's older brother and you don't mess with him. Of course his bedroom is totally off limits to anyone, and when Marc catches Chris and Laurel making out on his bed, well ... humiliation just doesn't get close to it.
Ergo Chris' dreams of sexual fulfillment in the arms of Laurel are now replaced by a driving need for revenge. Everyone knows sex and violence share the same bed, but readers will wince when they see it coming.
Nate Powell, whose graphics are on the book's black and white cover as well as throughout the book, adds his own murky interpretations. The author discovered his work during her editorial stint at Broken Pencil, and later pitched the idea of using his illustrations in Joyland to her enthusiastic editor.
The novel is well crafted. Each chapter is named after a video game -- Galaga, Frogger, Venture, Defender, Pac-Man -- and then is further divided into player 1 and 2, the two voices of Tammy and Chris. Thus the story ricochets between their two points of view: Tammy's quieter, slower, more reflective and all encompassing and Chris' driven, intense, narrow and fast-paced.
Schultz is convincing; she knows this 1980s video world like none other and the young characters she creates feel dead on. This is definitely a good read for mature youth and recommended reading for young parents. The rest of us can enjoy it for the pure pleasure of surprise and discovery. | October 2006
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.