I can’t say that I’m all that familiar with Young Adult literature past or present. So I was a bit shocked to keep running across f-words and sex scenes in Frank Portman‘s debut novel King Dork. Yeh, I know, I should probably read those Judy Blume books on my shelf. Or maybe I should have taken my nose out of all those comic books when I was younger.
King Dork concerns a very strange year in Tom Henderson’s high school life. He begins the year as the self-proclaimed “King Dork” — an outcast whose only friend is the guy whose name immediately preceeds Tom’s in the roll: Sam Hellerman. A series of bizarre events begins to unfold as Tom and Sam continually rename their imaginary band and Tom searches for clues about his father’s death. Tom is only marginally able to capitalize upon these events. The result –a deepening mystery in which Tom finds himself alone and questioning his own sanity — is an apt an allegory for adolescence as could be.
Portman’s writing is direct and colorful, tempering the turmoil of teenage boyhood with the wit of one who survived it. The language is contemporary without being fadish. Directly and indirectly, Portman uses rock ‘n’ roll’s storied slang and his character’s obsession with its history to season his prose. For those familiar with the references, Portman gives us another layer to the story without making it mysterious.
In the end, the mysteries of the plot resolve without Tom’s direction (though he certainly influences the resolution). It’s a risky proposition — a protagonist without the slightest grip on his own destiny (especially for a sorta mystery novel) — but Portman has painted such a realistic portrait of the high school outcast that the conclusion to the story puts a perfect comic spin on everything. Of course things would work out this way. Of course, because adolescence is already absurd.
With King Dork, an absolute tour de force of literary and musical references, cryptography and teenage obsession, Portman — or Dr. Frank as he’s known to fans of his pop-punk band, the Mr. T Experience (MTX) — proves himself to be a wonderful guide to one of the most ridiculous adventures we’ll ever experience: youth.