It’s a mystery, it’s a dark comedy, but most of all it’s King Dork.
Frank Portman’s debut YA novel (up till now Portman has worked as a musician) tells the story of Tom Henderson, a.k.a. King Dork, a.k.a. Chi-Mo, short for child molester, a cruel name given to him by the cruel “normal” kids after a high school guidance test says he should consider a career in the clergy.
Tom’s father has recently died under mysterious circumstances. His mother is a bit of a zombie, his sister is angry, and his kindhearted stepfather is ineffectual. His best (and only) friend is clever but has his own agenda and is addicted to prescription drugs. The other students and teachers at his school are cruel, slaves to the whims of fashion and unwritten social rules, or members of the Catcher Cult, a group of people who think life’s problems can somehow be answered by vague references to Salinger’s somewhat dated classic. (Catcher fans should take Tom’s protests with a grain of salt as they consider how his own voice mirrors Holden Caulfield’s) And Tom? Well, Tom’s a teenage boy.
It’s this character’s original voice that makes this book go. His adventures don’t always ring true, but Tom’s reactions to these events are utterly real. Tom spends his time obsessing over girls and sex. He creates names for bands, designs their albums, and gives titles to songs that he rarely gets around to writing. He rails against the casual cruelty of popular kids and the school system that often supports them. He’s smart, but self-conscious about it; funny and eloquent in his head, but alternating between awkward silences and obnoxiousness when he speaks aloud. He cultivates a kind of obsessive denial about his father’s death, pushing most of his own feelings about it aside but spending hours searching for coded conspiracies that might reveal what happened.
This is not a perfect book. The mystery (and perhaps the novel on the whole) concludes rather awkwardly. The vulgarity, substance abuse, and teen sex seem gratuitous and unlikely for a boy of Tom’s social status, but Portman isn’t condoning the behavior of any of his characters, just documenting them. Female characters are seen from a teen boy’s perspective: They’re the objects of sexual fantasy and not understood in any real depth. And here’s a peevish complaint: the musical tastes that Portman gives Tom are more like those of a thirty- or fortysomething music fan than those of a teenager.
Despite all of these flaws, I recommend King Dork. A character with a true and original voice is something to cherish, and readers from high school up who take the time to read between the lines will find an insightful look at teen society.
Check the WRL Catalog for King Dork
Or try King Dork as a book on CD