09 February 2015

King Dork by Frank Portman

I wish I could remember where I first came upon the mention of Frank Portman's KING DORK, because I would like to thank whoever it was that wrote said mention. It was one of the funniest books I've read in quite a while.

KING DORK follows Tom Henderson, social misfit and self-proclaimed King Dork, though his sophomore year of high school as he fends of bullies, learns about girls, laments his sad-sack teachers and their obsession with THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, and investigates a mysterious code left in his dead father's books.

If it sounds like a lot, that's because it is, and it's all remarkably interwoven. I was immediately reminded of Andrew Smith's GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, both because of the intricately-woven narrative, and the voice of the narrator.

Tom is one of the most likable protagonists I've come across in quite a while, mostly because of how honest he is. His observations of social hierarchy at school are keen, his relationships with adults feel true, his yearning for contact with the opposite sex are alternately intoxicating and frustrating. His relationship with Sam Hellerman, his only friend, is awkward and tender in equal measure. The two are more dependent on each other than either will admit.

The humor that suffuses KING DORK is gut-bustingly funny. Tom's wit shines through as he riffs on his teachers' reverence for THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, which he calls the Catcher Cult; the humiliating nature of PE classes in high school; how confusing girls are; and his own oddball family.

The narrative is a messy ball of yarn - in the best way possible. Plot points come and go, only to pop up again later, sneakily woven into what's come before. Misinformation, fake identities, and outright lies pepper the book as Tom tries to understand his father's code. Murder and child pornography rings and dry cleaning tickets and funeral cards all lead Tom deeper into the mystery - unless they turn out to be red herrings.

Music suffused KING DORK - not only is Tom trying to start a band, but he talks at length about his musical tastes, that of his peers and family, and what it means to him. The author is himself a musician, and he pulled this off beautifully.

The climax was unexpected (something Tom would appreciate, I'm sure). As Tom himself points out, he doesn't have a traditional character arc - he doesn't learn lessons or grow from his experiences. He just gets a fractured skull and some memory gaps. And the realization that being in a band makes you imminently more attractive to the opposite sex.

That's not quite true, though. Tom does grow up. He finds a connection to his father he didn't have before, even if he doesn't realize it. He learns a little bit (and only a little!) about the opposite sex. More than that, though, is the silent accumulation of maturity that teenagers experience. He may feel the same at the start and end of the novel, but we as readers know he's not.

My favorite part of KING DORK was at the very end of the book, when Portman provided a glossary of words, including hilarious mispronunciations of them, followed by a list of band names and rosters devised by Tom and Sam throughout the story.

There's so much going on in KING DORK that I'm sure I forgot to mention parts of it that I loved. I can't wait to read the sequel.