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Reviews Mon Dec 23 2013
When I was 9 years old, I got Super Mario 3 for my birthday. My sister, brother and I spent the rest of the day in a Nintendo-induced stupor as we unlocked one Koopa-invaded world after another. At some point, one of us--it doesn't matter which one, the details are long gone in the annals of my family history--dared to break our "die-to-die, level-to-level" rule for taking turns. This caused a full-blown war with many declarations of eternal hatred that only ceased when my parents sent us to our rooms and forbade any more gaming for the rest of the day. The three of us quickly made up, united by a common enemy: our evil parents who just did not understand the allure and magic of NES.
It is this old-school craze that Kevin Jakubowski is fleshing out in all its '80s glory in his debut novel, 8-Bit Christmas. A scriptwriter who has worked for both Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, Jakubowski is keenly aware of the humor that arises from the many anxieties that plague childhood. In the case of Jake Doyle, a third-grader from Batavia, IL, there is nothing more panic-inducing that Nintendo, or the lack thereof. After enduring the tyranny of Timmy Kleen, the one obnoxious brat who owns an NES in town, Jake decides the only thing he wants for Christmas is the gaming system. The untimely death of Timmy's Shih Tzu, crushed by a forty-two-inch television set, puts a damper on his plans. Every parent in town blames video games for the tragedy, leading to a countywide ban of Nintendo. It's up to Jake to save Christmas--and get one of those prized possessions into his own hands.
If the story sounds a bit like A Christmas Story, the comparison is not too far off. Jakubowski seems to be enthusiastically riffing of the holiday classic, itself based on a novel. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, Jake is surrounded by a rambunctious group of friends who can sometimes do him more harm than good. There's a bully lurking in the shadows, ready to squeeze out any Christmas cheer. His father is the kind of grumpy, no-nonsense Midwestern man who is at constant war with sports teams and traffic. Finally, there is the lusted after toy that grown-ups claim will bring one's demise. But instead of a Red Ryder BB Gun that will shoot your eye out, it's a Nintendo that will rot your brains.
The similarities go even further than content. The tone Jakubowksi uses is strikingly alike to a Christmas Story: infused with nostalgia for a by-gone era, abundant with witty quips and humorous commentary on small-town life, aware of the small heartbreaks and soaring joys of childhood but with the lens of adult hindsight. The fact that 8-Bit Christmas follows this template is not a flaw. In fact, I think it's one of the novel's greatest strengths. I caught myself laughing out loud more times than I could count, especially when certain axioms about being a kid were spelled out. Take, for example, Jake's observations about gender relations in elementary school:
"Male elementary-school behavior is bizarre when it comes to girls. You can't like them. Ever. You can't like boys either, obviously, but you most certainly can't like girls. Instead, you were supposed to operate in some kind of strange neutral zone, one that rewarded disinterest and, whenever possible, cruelty."
As someone who grew up during the late 80s and early 90s, the mention of the era's icons, pop culture and memorabilia did take me back to that "simpler time" of Cold War intrigue, feared Japanese domination, and PSAs on drugs that involved eggs and frying pans. Jakubowski name-drops every '80s reference that will make Generation X and some Millennials swoon: The Goonies, Cabbage Patch Kids, You Can't Do That on Television, the '85 Bears and, of course, Nintendo.
It does make you wonder who the target audience for this book is. Packaged like a young adult novel but focused on an elementary-school kid, and with cultural allusions mostly geared towards adults, 8-Bit Christmas might be trying to be too many things for too many people. Or, looked at another way, potential fans might be part of a very small niche: adults with a love for kid's stories that are easily charmed by reminiscences of their childhood years. Admittedly, I happen to fall into that category. Nevertheless, the question of the ideal reader sometimes puts the narrator in a tough spot, like when the topic of Santa Claus pops up. It's at those moments when you see the author's restraint, which, seeing that the "F word" is thrown around with nary a worry in the world, comes off as forced.
Still, that's a minor quibble in what is ultimately a pleasant reading experience. After reading so many children's books set in a grim, dystopian future where the only option is to kill or die, it was refreshing to retreat into a world where the biggest problem of the day is losing your retainer. It was also nice to enjoy a holiday story that avoided any sort of saccharine morality tale. Though Jake does learn a lesson, it's one that the kid-at-heart will agree with more than the stern parent. And for all its adult sensibility, 8-Bit Christmas does sustain an innocence and light-heartedness that can be sorely needed this time of year.
Image courtesy of Goodreads