Lucky Wander Boy
D.B. Weiss. New York : Penguin, 2003. 273 pp.
Review by James McGovern
If you are reading this review, you no doubt share fond memories of the classic arcade games of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with your fellow readers. For some this renewed interest can be satisfied by playing a few games from the past on a console or emulators such as MAME, but for others these games and the memories with which they are intertwined become no less than a detrimental obsession.
Enter Adam Pennyman, the main character in the D.B. Weiss novel, “Lucky Wander Boy.” Adam, a moody self-absorbed copywriter and sometimes charlatan graphic-designer, has an epiphany of sorts when a colleague introduces him to the MAME emulator. Childhood memories of a dingy arcade in Illinois and other trappings of his teenage years engulf him as he witnesses the rebirth of Frogger on a laptop screen. While this book details the epiphany of Adam Pennyman as he rediscovers games from his past, there is much more presented to the reader than just 80’s nostalgia.
D.B. Weiss delves into a study of the inexplicable and unpredictable occurrences that we all experience and looks at the paths that these events put before us. Weiss uses non-fictional games such as Pac-Man to illustrate this study in passages such as this discussion concerning our voracious yellow friend and his penchant for the dots in the maze:
“…each dot will possess a snowflake’s uniqueness, and the acquisition of each-no, the experience of each-will bring the Pac-Man a very specific and distinct joy or sorrow. The dots all rack up points equally, of course; in retrospect, however, some are revealed as wrong choices, links in a chain of wrong choices that trace out a wrong path leading to a withering demise beneath the adorable and utterly forgiving eyes of Blinky, Inky, Pinky, or Clyde .”
The protagonist’s quarry, the fictional Lucky Wander Boy arcade game, exemplifies this concept in that its rewards are earned through a random chain of events within the game. While most games I played as a youth had a predictable set of actions and outcomes due to an obvious path towards success such as the repeatable movements in Dragon’s Lair or the rudimentary artificial intelligence in Pac-Man, Lucky Wander Boy might be described as a surrealistic foray into random chaos and reward. No particular sequence of events can be repeated that appear to lead the avatar towards reproducible success. Rewards tend to appear through random actions of the player, but also these rewards and sights offered to the gamer will vary by individual. Of course, in an environment of such flux, one might begin to question natural laws and make otherwise obviously illogical choices.
Weiss uses the common junction of classic arcade games in many of our memories as a starting point to show how divergent our life experiences and results truly are. Like the pixilated hero in the Lucky Wander Boy game, our fate is left to many dimensions of chance and coincidence, our own action in the face of these events, and an infinite number of other forces at work around us. The ensuing and seemingly random threads; events, connections, experiences, and acts lead each of us to certain, but infinitely individual endpoints. Along these threads, we tend to have milestones of sorts that many of us share in our collective experiences that provide points of reference much like a trail of breadcrumbs. For Adam Pennyman, his memories of the classic gaming era renewed by his experience with MAME, become defining moments that he believes mark the beginning of his wandering from childhood naiveté to adult disillusionment. He attempts to retrace these breadcrumbs in order to find peace for himself as well as bring his arcade epiphany to life for the world to see.
It is also worthy of note that Adam’s newfound obsession and the path it puts before him, is experienced in parallel with his foray into the job market on the trailing edge of the dot-com boom. To varying degrees, his journey in search of his childhood game, Lucky Wander Boy, draws parallels with the events unfolding around him in the workplace. There is much more to this facet of Weiss’s novel, but I suspect what you draw from it will depend greatly on your own experiences of that time in history.
As with any experience put before us by chance or by design, this book will no doubt resonate in a myriad of ways to each individual reader. From my personal experiences in the periphery of the dot-com boom, writing, design, and of course classic arcade games then and now, Weiss’s novel brought forth memories of my past seen through a familiar, but different set of eyes. It reminded me that my appreciation of arcade games from my youth is a manifestation of personal review. It is a way to look back on the journey I have made through life and possibly gain a better understanding of what is yet to come. I can only hope that my choices will continue to lead me upward to the next levels of discovery and opportunity and not, as Weiss states, “…a withering demise beneath the adorable and utterly forgiving eyes of Blinky, Inky, Pinky, or Clyde.”