Huber, Frederic Vincent -- Apple Crunch [re-read]

I read this book when I was twelve or so. It's about a pair of hackers who disrupt computers all over New York City, and then try to use their talents to extort twenty million dollars from the mayor. One of them goes by "Zarf"; he likes to leave a tag by his electronic capers, a signature line: "ZARF IS WITH YOU AGAIN."

When I was twelve, I thought this was awesome. So now you know why I started using the handle "Zarf". (Originally on BBSes and on silly BASIC adventure games. I didn't get on the Internet until college, and by then, Zarf was just the handle I'd been using for years.)

Anyhow. I thought it would be interesting to re-read this as an adult. (I almost said "nominally an adult", but nominally, I'm still Zarf, right?)

It's not an awesome book. It's a caper novel, but without the wholehearted flippancy that the caper genre suggests. Having 15000 rolls of toilet paper unexpectedly delivered to a hospital is funny. The units of urgently-needed plasma stacked up in the street because the loading bay is clogged -- not so funny. And the book calls this out explicitly. Tweaking payroll so that half the sanitation workers get a two-cent paycheck and the other half get paid $49000 per month is funny, except that we hear a riot break out in the payroll office, and then somebody pulls a gun. And then we're right back with Harold "Wimpie" Begelman, charming schmoe, billiards addict, Zarf to his not-really-friends at the computer club, who is planning to defraud the city to the tune of twenty mil.

Inevitably, the book is dated -- down to the month, probably, if you can read the signs. It's the pre-AIDS 80s. All the action is on mini-computers and mainframes, with model numbers spelled out. (IBM, Burroughs, Honeywell.) A smartass ten-year-old girl uses a TRS-80; the nerds speak approvingly of the Apple 2.

Nostalgia aside, I didn't start to get a handle on this book until I realized it's not about computers. It's about New York. New York is a monster; enormous, complex, fucked up. Computer mistakes and computer-aided crime are simply the latest iteration of what New York has always been.

Everyone in this book loves New York. It's killing them and they wouldn't live anywhere else. (Except for maybe Switzerland, or Tel Aviv, but you know they'll miss New York.) Nobody's clean, not the cops or the hackers or the sanitation workers, but that just means that everybody's in it together.

When I started my re-read, I knew the rough storyline, but I couldn't remember how it ended. Isn't that wacky? This is one of my personal fairy tales, but I had no recollection whether Zarf and his hacker pal got away with the money. The author is even-handedly sympathetic towards them, the out-of-his-depth cop who is hunting them down, and the city IT guy who is caught up in the gears. Who's gonna win?

I should have known: the author ties himself in a knot to make sure they all win. Human beings take the Big Apple for twenty million dollars; that's victory. And a vacation in Switzerland or Tel Aviv or wherever for everybody.

(Inasmuch as New York is represented by a human being, it's the Mayor, who must be a fictionalization of Ed Koch, and the heck with him, right?)

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