It took me awhile, as it often does, but I got around to reading Frank Portman’s debut novel, King Dork, which I’m using in my fall class (should impress the hell out of someone’s father-in-law). I decided to assign the book awhile ago, and then chose other texts in a similar vein (Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and the movie Dazed and Confused … it’s a Teen Theme).
It’s a terrific book. I have something resembling a past with the author, who also goes by the name of Dr. Frank. He was a great DJ on KALX in the early 80s, then was/is the leader of the Mr. T Experience, an influential and underrated band. He has a blog that is always interesting, and I interviewed him once for Punk Planet … he thought it went very well, which it did, but he did all of the work, I emailed him a bunch of questions and he answered them in detail.
King Dork is … well, I hesitate to call it a Young Adult novel, because I think it transcends that genre, but neither do I want to dis the idea of young adult lit. But among other things, King Dork is a 21st-century commentary on Catcher in the Rye, and who ever thinks of Salinger’s novel as belonging to the Young Adult genre? Frank … I can’t call him Portman after a coupla decades thinking of him as Dr. Frank … he gets so many things right in this book, about adolescence, about forming a high-school garage band (long before they ever play a gig, they spend months, even years, choosing band names, pseudonyms, album titles, logos, and the like, and they are all hilarious … a handy appendix, called “Bandography,” lists them all), about high school and boys and girls. Actually, as a college teacher, I took very much to heart the descriptions of useless assigned tasks … he may have been talking about high school, but I fear he’s also scored a direct hit on a lot of college English classes, as well.
I would especially recommend this book to baby-boomer parents with teenage kids, because Portman (there, I said it) does a pretty good job of ripping them (us). Unlike Catcher in the Rye, though, King Dork has a sweetness at its core. The central character, Tom, is self-absorbed (like all teenagers), caustic towards everything outside himself (like most teenagers), but, outside of a strongly-felt hatred for the sadistic types who have so much power in high school, Tom makes an attempt to empathize with other people. One of the many ways he gets depressed is when he puts himself in someone else’s shoes and realizes how miserable they must be.
That core of sweetness raises King Dork above the mean-spirited, ridiculously over-praised Salinger novel. And while you can read this book without knowing a thing about the Mr. T Experience, it’s pretty hard for MTX fans to refrain from recognizing the same guiding intelligence in both music and novel. Ironic, confused, pop … that describes this novel, and a lot of MTX songs, as well. (My personal favorite song title from the novel is “Don’t Play Yahtzee with My Heart” by Oxford English, first album titled What Part of Suck Don’t You Understand?, and if that isn’t a song title worthy of the Mr. T Experience, I don’t know what is.)
I’d add that while I think there is a similar sweetness in a lot of Dr. Frank’s music, his stance, at least in the interview I did with him, was that he always wanted to irritate people; as he said in that interview, “I was consumed with bitterness and hatred for my fellow man - or at least my fellow 8th-graders.” What’s amazing about King Dork is that the bitterness and hatred is there, but so is a genuine fondness, not only for the dorks, but even for some of the less-sadistic others.
It’s astonishing, in retrospect, that it was barely six months ago that Frank emailed me, wondering if I had any connections that would help get the word out about his book … he seriously overestimated my importance, to say the least. He did something right, though, because King Dork is getting great reviews all on its own.
It even has a brilliant cover design.
Finally, and this will make sense to anyone who checks out his blog, I offer this: