Sunday, October 22, 2017

King Dork (2006)

This came to me as a recommendation in YA lit, out of the context of some thoughts I had on the animated picture Spirited Away. Frank Portman—who as Dr. Frank is captain of Bay Area punk-rock band the Mr. T Experience—is one of those enviable writers who can make his prose sing. That's helpful when, among other things, you are gunning for J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. This novel is more than just that, however: "It's actually kind of a complicated story," writes the first-person narrator, Tom Henderson, "involving at least half a dozen mysteries, plus dead people, naked people, fake people, teen sex, weird sex, drugs, ESP, Satanism, books, blood, Bubblegum, guitars, monks, faith, love, witchcraft, the Bible, girls, a war, a secret code, a head injury, the Crusades, some crimes, misrepresentation of skills, a mystery woman, a devil-hand, a blow job, and rock and roll." Yet therein lies the rub, more or less. It reminded me a little of the TV show Lost. In the beginning it is bristling with exploding ideas, but in the end it is gyrating like mad to make the pieces fit. I got lost myself at some point in King Dork, but I have a hunch all the pieces do fit pretty well down at their details. It's more the big picture I was concerned with. Mistaken identity and/or not recognizing someone you already know (cf., Lois Lane and Clark Kent / Superman) makes one key plot point hard to believe. Tom's family story and his mother are murky but whatever the realities it sounds at least formative and traumatic, which is not represented very urgently here, or at all. Maybe that's beside the point. If your target demographic is the disaffected tween to teen boy, and you are thinking in those terms, then there may be no good reason to get touchy-feely and lose them. As a baby boomer, I was entertained to find myself on the wrong side of this novel's generation gap. Tom deplores us all as hypocritical blowhards who can't let go of Vietnam, civil rights, the Beatles, and especially The Catcher in the Rye, which he excoriates. It's not hard to recognize the caricature and its realities. As it happens, I reread the Salinger recently, experiencing again (not that I reread it that often) how dated it has come to feel with its prep schools and New York Upper East Side lifestyle. Portman's update on the state of the nerd circa the turn of the millennium is bracingly candid. Tom's friendship with his best friend Sam Hellerman is at once shallow and deep, tenuous and committed, as only the relationships forged at that time of life are. King Dork may cheat a little on the character development, but the surface presentation is often dazzling.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Your description of the structure reminds me of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

  2. I love this book, taught it once. I am biased ... back when Portman was a student at Cal, he worked as a DJ at the college station, under the Dr. Frank handle. He was one of the most interesting DJs I've ever heard. I was lucky enough to interview him in 2000 for Punk Planet.

  3. That's a great story, thanks -- I bet he was a good DJ!

    Also, I will look into the Catton, sounds interesting.

  4. I need to get to this one. It's a goal of mine to read all the rock & roll novels. Obviously, I'm way behind.