Gerund's Reviews > King Dork

King Dork by Frank Portman
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Dec 20, 08

Read in January, 2007

JUST as literary heroes who sacrifice themselves for the greater good are usually described as Christ-like, so are disaffected teenaged narrators of young adult novels inevitably compared to Holden Caulfield of coming-of-age classic The Catcher In The Rye.
In King Dork, writer Frank Portman attempts to crawl out of Holden's shadow by having his 14-year-old protagonist Tom Henderson declare his disdain from the start for the "misfit kid superhero" towards whom all his teachers mantain a cult-like devotion.
It's pretty clear, though, that Tom is a character very much in the Holden mould, though he isn't exactly receiving the same amount of adulation from his elders.
As the title suggests, Tom isn't the most popular boy at his surbaban California high school. The author peoples it with all manner of brutish bullies, giggly girls and incompetent, sadistc teachers, and what's scary is that he makes them all entirely believable.
Tom is also smart (to ward off bullies, he wears an army jacket and cultivates a gun-loving image), creative (he forms a new rock band a week with his best friend Sam Hellerman, though their lack of musical talent is a slight drawback) and sensitive (he mourns his late father, who died under unclear circumstances when he was eight).
Our hero says it best when he introduces himself in what the reader soon learns is a charcateristically self-conscious fashion: "I suppose I fit the traditional mould of the brainy, freaky, oddball kid who reads too much, so bright that his genius is sometimes mistaken for just being retarded."
This Holden-esque fragility, coupled with frequent references to alternative rock bands -- the writer is a member of pubk rock band The Mr T. Expaerinece -- ensured King Dork was a hit when it was released in the US in 2006.
While King Dork's ethos is undeniably hip and modern, Tom is not quite the voice of the myspace generation. In what is perhaps a betrayal of the author's age, there is nary a mention of a computer, let alone the dot com boom, instant messaging, or an impending anxiety over y2k, despite being set in the fall of 1999.
Despite Tom's dislike for Catcher, it is this book that ends up changing his life, when he discovers an old copy that belonged to his father. Filled with cryptic scribbles, it starts Tom on an investigation into his father's murky past, which turns out toi be weirder and weirder with each successive revelation.
Also like Holden is Tom's fascination and relative lack of success with members of the opposite sex -- until he finaly makes out with a mysetrious girl who then promptly vanishes from Tom's (admittedly limited) social radar.
From then on the game is afoot, with Tom valiantly cracking codes, dodging bullies and enjoying unexpected trysts, all the while preparing his band for their grand debut at the school's talent show.
Portman restrains himself from tying up the loose ends, which although annoying is a fair refelction of the messiness of life.
More disappointing, however, are certain abusrd plot twists that he piles on towards the end, which feel arbitrary and out-of-place after the care in which Tom was brought to life.
Still, this is an engrossing read that might even strike close to home sometimes, whether or not you're still in school.
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