All I’m saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life—remind me to kill myself.
—Randall “Pink” Floyd, Dazed and Confused
There are many things to love about Frank Portman’s King Dork, not the least of which is how easy it is to write the opening of a review. Portman’s narrator, Tom Henderson, pretty much does for us in the book’s second paragraph: “it’s actually kind of a complicated story, 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, mispronunciation skills, a mystery woman, a devil-head, a blow job, and rock and roll.”
It’s certainly true that Portman has somehow packed all these things into his rollicking and brilliant first novel. But King Dork is more than the sum of its parts, no matter how entertaining it is to read those parts. And what it’s really about is the one thing not mentioned on that list: high school.
The King Dork of the title is Tom Henderson, a bright, eccentric, awkward, rock and rolling teenage outcast who describes high school as “the penalty for transgressions yet to be specified.” Tom is dark enough to have cultivated a Columbine vibe as a defense mechanism (Army surplus coat, Guns and Ammo magazine, “Kill ‘Em All” t-shirt). He’s old enough to lust after “callipygian” women, and smart enough to know what callipygian means (hint: see Mix-A-Lot, Sir). But when the novel opens, in August of his sophomore year, he’s also innocent enough that he’s never talked to a girl on the phone, has only one friend, genuinely loves his hippie mom, and generally tolerates her genially ineffectual husband. And he really misses his dead father, a cop who was killed six years earlier in what may have been a traffic accident, a suicide, or a murder.
Murder, you ask? Well, yeah. King Dork is marketed as a young adult novel, so there’s some mystery and deciphering and converging of various seemingly unrelated plot strands. But there’s a lot that separates King Dork from, say, Harry Potter. First off, although much has been made of his continuing maturation, Harry Potter has yet to receive a blowjob (which, let’s face it, is a huge hole in the Hogwarts universe—are you trying to tell me that pubescent wizards aren’t conjuring up concubines day and night?). And, although Harry is continually tormented by kids and adults alike, his trials occur in a magical place in which he is, in fact, some kind of heir to some kind of throne. Or something.
Like any brainy 14-year-old, however, Tom knows all too well the differences between his life and the teenage world depicted in popular culture:
In youth-oriented movies and books, the guy like me often has a huge crush on a specific blond cheerleader who doesn’t know he exists and would never stoop to talking to him. Or maybe she is kind of mean to him even though she’s friends with him and asks him for advice on how to get the football guy to make out with her, which drives him crazy, and so forth. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m definitely that guy, but there isn’t one specific girl who fits that formula, and the idea that someone like that would ever be friendly with me in any sense, even as a device to dramatize my own pain and loneliness, is rather preposterous.
The world precariously navigated by Tom and his best friend Sam Hellerman, is, in fact, all too real—a Darwinist nightmare populated by psychotic “normals” (think future frat boys/sorority girls), robotic and ignorant teachers, and cruel administrators. Tom and Sam spend their days thinking up new names for their (mostly) fictional band, daydreaming through embarrassingly outdated and ridiculous classes, tracking down that aforementioned mystery, and trying to avoid myriad humiliations, which range from the newly minted Make Out/Fake Out (normal girl pretends to make advances on geek guy) to the old fashioned beat-down.
It is this depiction of the high school ecosystem as alternately terrifying and boring, gritty and surreal, and above all brutally efficient in doling out reward to the fittest and punishment to the unfit, that separates King Dork from the Harry Potters and the traditional Brooding Outsider books (like Catcher in the Rye, which gets a bit of a literary bashing throughout this book).
With all that fear and humiliation going around, it’s a credit to Portman that King Dork is also one of the funniest books of the year, maybe of any year. Never joke-y or distracting, the humor is a natural extension of Tom’s real and unique voice. When he ruminates on the existence of God, for instance, Tom decides that “the universe seems so flawlessly designed to be at my expense that I doubt it could be entirely accidental.”
Tom Henderson’s universe is indeed strewn with landmines, but he is so funny, so heartbreaking, and knowing that it’s a pleasure to walk in his Chuck Taylors. He’s the most rockingest loser this side of Sam Lipsyte’s Teabag (narrator of last year’s brilliant high school loser book, Home Land), with a keen outsider’s eye and a razor tongue that you’ll miss as soon as you turn that last page.
A piece of advice from a graduate who’s already walked these literary halls: read this book slowly, enjoy every moment. They grow up so fast.