King Dork by Frank Portman

King Dork by Frank Portman

If King Dork's cover seems vaguely familiar, that's because it looks like a defaced copy of The Catcher in the Rye. The title and its author Frank Portman are scrawled in ballpoint pen with a blatant disregard for the granddaddy of all coming-of-age novels.

This sums up how Tom Henderson feels about Salinger's classic novel. He notices a Catcher cult amongst most adults, who sing the praises of the book changing their lives. Tom thinks all of this is, to borrow a phrase from Holden Caulfield, "phony," but a particular copy of the book is about to turn his world upside down and inside out.

Tom is at the bottom of the Hillmont High School popularity totem pole. He's gathered a collection of insulting nicknames including the most pervasive one: "Chi-Mo" -- don't ask. The moniker that Tom prefers for himself is "King Dork."

With his partner in social nonexistence Sam Hellerman at his side, Tom discovers a 50-year-old mystery involving his dead father, Catcher, and an encoded message from someone named Tit.

Meanwhile, Tom's also dealing with his public school pariah status, his awkward hippie stepdad, and the enticing mystery girl he managed to make out with at a party across town. All of this adds up to a hysterical take on teenagedom.

Tom Henderson might be my favorite anti-hero in all of teen literature. He can certainly be a jerk, as his cynicism shows. Tom repeatedly cites "normals" as his biggest pet peeve, which sounds an awful lot like Holden to me. But as an outsider, Tom's observations of high school interactions are both hilarious and anthropological, like Jane Goodall watching the apes.

Tom wryly dissects the homophobia of the jocks, the the predatory psychology of the popular girls, and the hopeless apathy of the burnout teachers. To King Dork, nothing is sacred....except music.

Rock 'n' roll—and Tom's love of it, is a huge aspect of the book. He and Sam listen to many rock albums and are constantly coming up with their own band names, stage personas, and album titles. They like this creative process so much that they never actually stick with a single name. My favorite names are The Mordor Apes and The Elephants of Style.

Portman offers some genuine expertise into Tom's musical tastes. In the eighties he formed the Bay Area punk rock outfit The Mr. T. Experience. You can see whom Tom gets his band name ideas from.

A little bit of this book is the quintessential male geek fantasy. As Tom is pulled further into the mystery of his dad's death, he finds himself somewhat romantically entangled with not one but two girls. Also, the only female character that appears to be of any real substance is pushed to the margins of the book. At least she's even there. Sigh.

What's most impressive is how Portman builds an entire social ecosystem of losers, bullies, populars, and stoners and their behavior toward each other. The book's humor is scathing and its hormones are raging. As a mystery, King Dork is intriguing and, as a coming-of-age novel, it is absolutely sublime.

If you like the novel, the next step is Portman's follow-up Andromeda Klein, which, thankfully has a strong female protagonist. Fans of King Dork do not need to wait long for a sequel. King Dork Approximately, which picks up right where the first book left off, is due out in September of this year.

I leave you with a performance of Tom Henderson's all-time favorite song. It is the swaggering, bubblegum-soaked "Fox on the Run" by The Sweet. Its infectious pop structure and driving drums must be the blueprint of a thousand pop punk bands, including Portman's. Enjoy.