Saturday, February 21, 2009

King Dork

King Dork by Frank Portman is one of the most fun reads I've had in ages. It's ostensibly written for young adults but, like with the best fiction in any sub-genre, its appeal is much broader than that. I think the quote from someone called John Green on the cover of my edition says it best: "If you're in a band or wish you were, if you loved or hated The Catcher in the Rye, if you like girls or are one... King Dork will rock your world." I'll leave it up to you to decide which of these categories I belong to, but suffice to say, my world was rocked.

King Dork is the story of Tom Henderson, a teenager who is hopelessly uncool, struggles to make friends or meet girls (although he thinks about this a lot), and spends most of his time with his only friend Sam Hellerman, thinking up band names, roles and album titles of their not yet actually formed band (e.g. The Sadly Mistaken, GUITAR: Moe Vittles, BASS AND LANDSCAPING: Sam 'Noxious' Fumes, FIRST ALBUM: Kill the Boy Wonder. There's a lot more where that came from- see the 'Bandography' at the back of the book).

A lot of the humour and enjoyment in the novel comes from Tom's wry observations of those around him. He is an outsider with excellent insight. Some of the funniest moments for me were his comments about his try-hard hippy step-father, also called Tom:
Our official legal relationship is pretty recent, though he's been around for quite a while. I don't know why they decided to get married all of a sudden. They went away for the weekend to see Neil Young in Big Sur and somehow came back married. They still refer to each other as partners, though, rather than husband-wife. 'Have you met my partner, Carol?' Like they're lawyers who work at the same law firm, or cops who share a squad car. Or cowboys in the Wild West. 'Howdy, pardner.'

Later in the novel Tom goes even further into articulating the difference between the 60's generation and those who came after them (although I did have to think that most teenagers today would have parents who grew up in the 80's rather than the 60's). He combines this with a critique of the Catcher in the Rye, the book most of his high school English teachers are obsessed with (forgive the long-ish quote, I think it's worth it to get a flavour of the book):
Look, it's not even that bad a book. I admit it. I can feel sorry for myself while pretending to be Holden Caulfield. I can. And I can see why the powers that be have decided to adopt it as their semi-offical alterna-Bible. Things were really bad in the sixties. You were always getting kicked out of your prep school, or getting into fights at your prep school, or getting marooned on deserted islands on the way to your fancy English boarding school. And when you finally got off the island, your 'old man' was always on your 'case', and Vietnam just drove you crazy, plus you were constantly high on drugs and out of touch with reality and it was sometimes a little more difficult than it should have been to get everyone to admit how much better you were than everybody else. It was rough. I get it. I really get it. Up with Holden. I'd have probably been the same way.
In the end, though, the attempt to save the world by forcing people to read Catcher in the Rye and dressing casually and supporting public television and putting bumper stickers on Volvos and eating only weird expensive food and separating your cans and bottles and doing tai chi and going to the farmers' market and pronouncing Spanish words with a cartoon-character accent and calling actresses actors and making up your own religion and so forth- well, the world refused to be saved that way. Big surprise.

Tom also has some cutting things to say about education, particularly in his description of AP classes (which I believe are advanced classes in American schools). At Tom's school the AP classes spend their time making collages and doing role plays while the plebs in the regular classes (including the narrator) do endless vocabulary lists in English. Needless to say, everyone is reading Catcher in the Rye. As a high school English teacher (who loves Catcher in the Rye by the way) this was pretty close to the bone for me, and had me rolling on the floor with laughter.

King Dork has a pacy plot which somewhere part-way through turns into a crime mystery, a funny, coming-of-age, crime mystery, romance mash up that just works. The ending slightly stretches believability but somehow Portman pulls it off. This is definitely not a book a book for younger teenagers (sex and drug references aplenty) but would suit savvy readers in the upper years of high school. And, as I mentioned, there is lots here for adults to enjoy as well.


Sarah said...

I've read several glowing reviews of this now, so will order it and see what I think.

If you're interested, John Green is a YA author whose been very successful in the states- Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines are both very good, I 'd recommend them.

Sarah said...

Sorry, make that who's- those damn homophones will get me every time!

jess said...

Thanks for your comment Sarah. I will have to chase up John Green now- he sounds good.

robin_titan said...

thanks for the review! I might just get this soon :D