Friday, October 05, 2007

King Dork by Frank Portman

If you know a teenage boy who hated The Catcher in the Rye but otherwise likes to read, preferably one who is in a band or wishes he was, you need to give that guy King Dork, a Young Adult novel published last year.

Well, actually, it would help if he had been a teenager in the '80s or early '90s -- the only real problem with King Dork as a YA book is that it's quite clearly not set in the present day, though it intermittently pretends to be. King Dork takes place in a world where high school kids never mention the Internet, or having cell phones, or downloaded music. (One giveaway is a comment about the album vs. CD debate...which is so 1992.) In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the real era of King Dork were the mid-'80s, which was my high-school years and I suspect was Frank Portman's as well.

Our main character is deliberately retro in his musical tastes, which is fine, but I think that, in conception, he was somewhat less retro than he now seems. (He loves '70s music -- prefers bubblegum, but loves heavy metal and punk and other loud things of the era as well. This is not particularly weird for a kid in the mid-'80s, but a bit less likely for a kid in the late '90s or mid-'00s. From internal evidence, I think this novel is officially supposed to be set in around 1997-99, but, as I said, that doesn't entirely make sense.) To be blunt, a kid like him would at least have an opinion about Nirvana -- he might hate them, but he wouldn't be silent on the subject. But, in King Dork, the latest cultural reference is to a list of Goth bands: Joy Division, the Cure, the Smiths. (I'll grant that King Dork has to take place after Ian Curtis's suicide, but I'm less convinced it "really" happens after the Smiths broke up.)

So actual current teenagers might find this novel slightly odd and not representative of the surfaces of their lives. It does nail the essential cruelty and pack behavior of teenagers, though, and has a great voice in Thomas "Chi-Mo" Henderson, the first-person narrator and "King Dork" himself. (Though, from my own experience, no guy who actually in a band -- let alone the lead singer and guitar player for even a crappy band -- could possibly be considered a dork in high school. An outcast, yes. Specifically a dork, no.) Tom has had a rough life, in tried-and-true YA novel fashion: his dad died a few years back, and nearly every other kid in his school despises him.

King Dork is a novel of voice rather than of plot; it covers approximately the first half of Chi-Mo's sophomore year, but mostly as experienced deeply within his own skull. Chi-Mo does discover a cache of books that his father read (and marked up) as a teenager in the '60s, which drives part of the plot, but it's mostly the day-to-day life of a kid who wants to be in a band, is pretty smart in his own head, but has yet to discover how to be socially ept.

Since I love novels written in the first person, in particular those with a really strong, specific narrative voice, I enjoyed King Dork a lot. I can imagine that not everyone will find Chi-Mo to their tastes; female readers in particular might find him tedious and juvenile. (But, to that latter point, this is a YA novel, so it's appropriate.)

Let me end by quoting Chi-Mo's advice to other boys like himself:
If you're in a band, even an extremely sucky band, girls, even semihot ones like Celeste Fisher and Deanna Schumacher, will totally mess around with you and give you blow jobs and so forth, provided you can assure them that no one will ever find out about it. Start a band. Or go around saying you're in a band, which is, let's face it, pretty much the same thing. The quality of your life can only improve.
So go forth and pretend to be in a band, already.

1 comment:

Molly Moloney said...

I loved "King Dork"-- and like you was a bit perplexed by its time period. For most of the book I just assumed that it was taking place in the 1980s. The feel and the references all seemed to be of my time. (I graduated from high school in 1992, my husband in 1985-- and from various things I'd read him of it, we both agreed it was from somewhere between us, possibly closer to him than me). But then suddenly I came across a couple of references to years that clearly contradicted this (for instance, I seem to recall a reference to a mid/late 90s vehicle of some sort (and it wasn't even supposed to be a new one!) I can see why they might not have particularly marketed it as from the 80s, but I really don't see why the writing of the book itself was so ambiguous in that way. Still, though, it's a great book.

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