If a body catch a dork coming through the rye…

h1 August 5th, 2006 by eisha

King DorkKing Dork is the first novel by Frank Portman, who is more widely known as Dr. Frank, the guitarist/singer of the pop-punk band Mr. T Experience. But don’t automatically lump it in your mind with all those other get-me-I’m-a-celebrity-writing-a-children’s-book types – it’s actually not bad. And it totally took me back to high school, whether I wanted to go there or not.

Tom, a.k.a. King Dork, a.k.a. Chi-Mo (don’t ask), a.k.a. a host of other derogatory nicknames, plays Virgil for our tour of American High-School Hell. He and his best friend Sam spend their days trying to avoid verbal and physical abuse at the hands of their fellow students, and endlessly renaming their almost-imaginary band (ex: “Ray Bradbury’s Love-Camel, you on guitar, Scammy Sammy on bass and calisthenics, first album Prepare to Die“). His spacey neo-hippie mom is remarried to a tortuously corny former-hippie. He’s hilariously contemptuous of the “collage and Catcher curriculum” provided by burned-out incompetent teachers, and righly so: the first few weeks of his sophomore English class consist of the teacher, Mr. Schtuppe, mispronouncing words from 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary: “In 30 days, you will learn how to make words your slaves.” But his everyday teen-angst is interrupted by a series of mysteries: he finds a coded message and a funeral card in his deceased father’s old copy of Catcher in the Rye, a strange girl makes out with him at a party and apparently vanishes into thin air, his friend Sam is suddenly hanging out with the “drama hippies” at lunch, etc. While trying to decipher the Catcher code, he reads through several more books from his father’s teenage years, trying to gain insight into what kind of person he really was, and possibly even learn more about his death (supposedly a car accident while he was on police duty).

This all sounds fairly implausible and overly dramatic, but it works better than you’d think. Portman grounds the fanciful plot in plenty of (sometimes painfully) realistic descriptions of teenage misery, boredom, violence and lust. Tom is well-developed and believable, esp. to anyone with a certain degree of music-fixation. There’s a lot of humor, and the narrative voice is original and engaging. Here’s a description of a funny tic Tom develops not-quite-halfway through the book:

Whenever I would try to make a word my slave, that is, when I would use a word from 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, a little image of Mr. Schtuppe’s head would pop up in my mind. Like, I’d say “obsequious” and suddenly I’d see a little shiny pink devil-head with lots of ear hair pop up really quickly, spin around, and pop back down again.

I was pretty sure that the little pop-up devil-head was trying to prompt me to mispronounce the word.

Thereafter, any impressive vocabulary word in the text is precipitated by a parenthetical (devil-head). It’s hilarious, and contagious.

Where the book fell apart for me was the (devil-head) denouement. Some of the mysteries get solved, but the one that I found most compelling really doesn’t. And some pretty flimsy devices are used to account for the rushed and unsatisfying conclusion – a head injury, a fragile and flaky person whose account of events can’t be trusted, and a whole new school scandal thrown in at the last minute. Don’t get me wrong, I think sometimes a mystery left unsolved can work – John Green’s excellent Looking for Alaska, for example. But Alaska works because Miles really pursues the answers as far as he possibly can. Tom just kind of decides he’d rather not know. After all the build-up applied to that particular plotline, I still wanted to know more. So it seems like Tom – who certainly has more at stake in this mystery than I do, and had showed such (devil-head) tenacity in trying to solve it up to that point – would still want to know more too.

So, okay, not perfect, but a fun read, and an impressive debut – much better than the average musician-turned-author offering. But for the squeamish, be forewarned that there’s plenty of profanity and a slightly fantastical number of blow jobs.

2 comments to “If a body catch a dork coming through the rye…”

  1. […] Mmmmm, literature . . . June 20th, 2007 &nbsp&nbsp by jules […]

  2. […] of punk-based YA novels over the past year or two (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and King Dork spring to mind) but Beige takes the themes of teen rebellion and punk music and gives them a unique […]

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