cover image LUCKY WANDER BOY


D. B. Weiss, . . Plume, $13 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-452-28394-7

Although its disaffected hero is a walking repository of video game arcana, you don't have to know Galaga from Galaxian or Dig-Dug from Mr. Do to enjoy Weiss's ambitious but flawed first novel. Both a heartfelt paean to old-school video gaming and an angry, Chuck Palahniuk–style exploration of contemporary anomie, the novel can be slyly postmodernist and surprisingly erudite. The literary and pop culture references come fast and furious, drawing from sources as offbeat and various as Shakespeare, Leonard Cohen and Donkey Kong. For protagonist Adam Pennyman, video games (that is, the simple, low-tech arcade classics of the early 1980s) are the perfect means of escape from a reality increasingly polluted by venality, hypocrisy and casual cruelty. While languishing in a dead-end position at Portal Entertainment, a lowbrow Los Angeles production company that proudly claims the video game–based Eviscerator movie franchise as its top cash cow, Pennyman becomes fixated on writing the "Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments," a pseudo-intellectual treatise on the philosophical and transcendental merits of video gaming. He also develops an unhealthy obsession with Lucky Wander Boy, an obscure and surrealistic arcade game that no one seems to have ever beaten, and with Araki Itachi, its enigmatic female creator. Weiss adroitly sketches the claustrophobic confines of Pennyman's monomaniacal mindset, but is far less successful in fleshing out the men and women who share the stage with his tortured protagonist. Both Pennyman's lovers—the dissatisfied Polish émigré Anya and the hip, laconic Clio—and his boss, culturally illiterate megacapitalist Kurt Krickstein, are flimsy, slapdash archetypes. Weiss further falters with some overly pretentious prose and muddled themes. Fortunately, his cleverly sardonic sense of humor (Pennyman mentally sorts a group of fellow Internet copywriters into "the thick and the dead") helps breathe life into this uneven but undeniably original tale. (Mar.)