King Dork by Frank Portman
The Plot: Tom Henderson is trying to make it thru high school -- he has a best friend (Sam Hellerman) based merely on alphabetical order, a band that spends most of its time thinking up cool album names, and a hippie stepfather. He's a self-described King Dork, a loser. Then he finds his dead father's copy of Catcher in the Rye, and begins discovering things about his father, and himself.
The Good: Laugh out loud funny. As you can see, I've added it to my Best Books of 2006 sidebar.
I love the idea of connecting with a missing person by a shared book; not just any book, but the actual, physical book held and read and written in by the parent.
I like that Tom is an unreliable narrator.
I adore that Tom hates Catcher in the Rye and the whole Catcher cult. People either love or hate CITR; count me as one who doesn't get what is so darn great about it. (I read it and thought eh, a book about a spoiled rich boy who thinks his life is so hard when it really isn't; I've been advised to read it now that I'm older, which, of course, leads to the whole is it or isn't it YA argument.) Anyway. Since I've never thought Catcher was all that, and Tom doesn't either, Tom and I instantly bonded. (Interestingly, I've heard at least one person say that this caused an instant dislike of Tom, because Tom was trashing the.best.book.ever, and so they had a hard time getting into the book.)
I also loved the look at creativity. Tom has a band, and they spend most of their time thinking of the perfect band name and album covers. But upon occasion, they also write original songs. Portman, himself a musician, shows how part of becoming an artist and finding one's own voice includes being "inspired" by another's work to the point of unintentionally copying. (Discuss amongst yourselves who I'm talking about. Further discussion point: the roles of adults in the lives of young artists, who should be aware of this "inspiration").
Tom explains, "I wrote this song called 'Kyrsten Blakeny's a Total Fox,' only to realize that what I'd done was basically rewrite 'Christine Sixteen' with new, suckier lyrics." Later, he gets irritated at his stepfather saying a new song sounds like something else. His friend says, "You know, 'My Baby Who Art in Heaven' does sound an awful lot like 'Sweet Jane.'" "Fuck," I said. " (Let me just add that the way Kyrsten spells her first name? Cracks me up.)
There was a recent book about teenage boys and sex, which I hated. The point of that other book was to make teenage boys more sympathetic; I read it and thought, this is the book I'd want my fictitious daughter to read if I wanted her to never date or trust a boy. I mention this unnamed book just to say, where that other book failed, King Dork succeeds.
A book that is honest and funny and about sex and does make teenage boys sympathetic and lovable? King Dork. The boys are dorky, sometimes stupid, think about sex a lot. They hook up with girls. (And this is where I know that Tom is an unreliable narrator, because I don't think anyone who is such a "loser" as Tom describes himself is going to be getting the action he gets.) But you're always rooting for Tom, and liking Tom, and laughing with Tom.
I wonder about the audience of the book; is it teens, or is it people my age? I think the target audience for this book is older teens (age 16 and up into college); but this is also a crossover book adults will love.
There is a mystery plot that Tom tries to unravel, about his father, and the cause of his father's death. In all honesty, it's a weak mystery; the joy of this book isn't what happened to Tom's dad but rather, what is Tom going to say or do next? So, the remainder of my review will be highlights from Tom.
Tom on the education he's getting: "My academic achievements were second to none, yet somehow I instinctively knew I wasn't going to solve this particular problem by making a collage or appreciating ethnic food or putting on a skit."
Tom on his father's book collection: "Among them was a beat up copy of The Little Red Book, which is a collection of retarded sayings by this chubby mass murderer from China."
Tom on putting together the clues of his father's life: "And that road of reasoning leads to an entirely different way of looking at it, which is that all these elements are random and not really connected to each other in any particular way, except to the degree that Sam Hellerman and I tried to make them make sense by coming up with a storyline to tie them together."
About boomers: "You stuck it to the man, killed half of your brain cells, and dumbed down the educational system: you are the greatest generation."
And don't ignore the hidden gems found in the glossary, which includes a handy pronunciation guide.
boomers: the most annoying generation
bob dylan: BAY bee ZIM er mn
KISS: nites in SERViss uv SAY tan
The Smiths: da smurfs
The Pop Goes the Library Frank Portman interview. If you're thinking, why doesn't Liz mention the music in the book? Sophie & Frank have it covered in the interview.
Dr. Frank's blog.
I read this book in a state of fatigue during the 48 Hour Book Challenge, and felt that I never gave it the great write-up that it deserved. Glad to see your raving review for it. I have to say that the blow job references woud push this to the upper teens and I do wonder if it almost more for nostalgic adults.
The band and album names throughout were my favorite parts.
Great review, Liz. King Dork is a classic. Like you, I bonded over the "Catcher" thing right away!
Yes, yes, yes! This is in my top 3 books for 2006.
So you think Tom was making up the meetings with Ms. Skooooomacher? And the handjob he got from faux Fiona in the hospital? Hmm ... I hadn't thought of that possibility. It did seem strange to me that so many girls would give bj's on the side, while they had other boyfriends, but I thought maybe I was just out of touch with the way things are now?
Re Tom and every girl he meets wants to fall on her knees: I thought it very unbelievable; so I figured Tom was either exagerating the action he was getting in a wish-fulfillment sort of way, or he was exagerating being a "loser"; that it was a reminder that Tom was an unreliable narrator.
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