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Book Review: King Dork by Frank Portman

All right, 'fess up? Who was a dork at school? Anyone? Anyone? Oh, I bet everyone's got a hand raised. My horrific school time was middle school. I went through my ugly phase with a combination of large glasses and crooked teeth. I also insisted on this weird hairstyle where my hair would completely cover one side of my face. I thought I was being a skater chick. The boys all had "squeebs" that covered one eye. I thought I should have one, too! I got made fun of a lot in sixth grade. There was also this huge bully that would routinely beat my friends up. Somehow I escaped her physical wrath, but I was terrified of her.

Well, no matter what your story, I think you might have trouble outdorking King Dork. In my head, as I read, I imagined a combination of Napoleon Dynamite, Bill from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, one of those computer geeks from the 80s films, and a Will from Good Will Hunting.

Here's some really original things about this book:
  • He is picked on but has a very large ego.

  • He has a reasonably good relationship with his stepdad.

  • He doesn't wait until the end of the book to stand up for himself.

  • He is sympathetic one moment and odious the next.

I couldn't wrap my head around his character. Every time I thought I had him pegged, he surprised me, and that's what kept me reading. Even as I was sitting with my mouth open at the fact that he is having not just one, but two superficial physical relationships, I was just dying to know what he'd do next.

King Dork is Tom Henderson, although his enemies actually call him Chi-Mo. Chi-Mo is a friendly little nickname hoisted onto him when he took a personality test that revealed he would be good at a clergy job. Based on that, everyone started calling him Chi-Mo, which stands for 'child molester.' And that's just a small indication of the kinds of things his classmates do to him on a regular basis.

They harass him, pick on him, call him names, and beat up on him as a habit. During gym class, Tom hopes the guys keep talking in the locker room so he won't be noticed. If he's not noticed, he can't be picked on.
But it's not just his classmates. His teachers--for heaven's sake--humiliate him. Why? Because they can.

Portman's character development of Tom never quits. He doesn't so much physically describe him as mentally. We know how Tom thinks. He wears the long army jacket because it creates enough doubt in his enemies' minds. Is he unstable enough to actually go on a shooting spree? No, of course not, but they don't know that. Chi-Mo practices all sorts of deceptive techniques so he can avoid the bullying, even if it's only for a short reprieve.

Okay, the basic plot is that while Tom is picked on, he and his buddy Sam are always planning for their rock band. While they have no instruments to play at the beginning, they create an ever-changing array of band names, album covers, and titles for their title songs which don't exist. Sam and Tom aren't exactly friends; they are more of associates. They can't spend too much time together because of the dork factor, but they have similar ambitions.

Tom lives with mom, sister, and stepdad. His dad died from a car crash, and the whole family misses him. Stepdad is a funny little guy with punchlines and slogans dropping out of his mouth regularly: "Let's rock n roll!" One day, while searching through his dad's things, he finds a copy of the book Catcher in the Rye with strange markings in it. Along with several other paperback books, he starts to notice repeated sets of numbers/letters. Eventually, he realizes the books are covered in codes. Tom makes it his job to uncover the codes. He has the skills and the time, and it leads him on quite a journey as he delves into his father's past life.

On the way, he meets the girl(s) of his dreams and gets a chance to play his music for an attentive crowd. Hopefully this isn't sounding like a cheezy-little-happy-ending-type book, because you couldn't be more WRONG.

I found myself laughing harshly at the writing in this book. So much of what Tom says makes sense to my generation. The book was marketed for a YA crowd, but I'm just not sure. I think a lot of the references Portman uses wouldn't make a lot of sense to many teens I know. I almost got the feeling this was a book for adults disguise as a young adult book. So much of the commentary rings true for my generation. Tom talks about honors classes and what jokes they are. He talks about the weighted grade system which I am not sure exists anymore. When I got an 'A' in my honors classes, it actually recorded as 5.0 for my GPA, so I really enjoyed him mentioning that. Also, he said during honors history you just watch movies all the time, which is totally true.

Here is a sample of the writing to give you a flavor. This is during one of the gym classes. Tom and Sam are being forced to fight one another during a boxing lesson. Sometimes the teacher does this. But the one rule is you can't be forced to fight if your nose is bleeding. Sam has a special talent for bleeding on command, which infuriates the teacher:
Sam's Hellerman's special boxing talent was that he got nosebleeds all the time. He was so good at it that he could pretty much start bleeding at will, through the power of his mind. Mr. Donnelly would put him in the ring and roar: "I'm warning you, Hellerman! If you start bleeding before you're hit, there will be hell to pay!" But little Sam Hellerman would just stand there with an angelic look, bleeding away. Mr. Donnelly would glower and yell and turn twenty-three shades of red, but he couldn't touch Sam Hellerman because that would probably have been good for about three or four million dollars, by a conservative estimate.
Just the thought that you can get nosebleeds and look angelic is crazily funny. Okay, just one more section. This is where he finds the guitar his stepdad buys for him. When I read this, I was in a quiet conference room and started laughing out loud.
I hadn't noticed it before, but Little Big Tim had put a Post-it note on the top magazine. It said "look in the closet." I frowned and slid open the closet door and, well, maybe you guessed it already, but I was totally thrown: there was a guitar case in there with a Post-it note on it that said "Merry Christmas in advance." Little Big Tom has trouble expressing himself in spoken words, but he was a master of concise communication in Post-it form. 

This is a well-written book. Heck, it's written on a level beyond well-written. The writing is tight and full of life. Each sentence seemed to contain ten unique thoughts.

The only thing I didn't like was there was quite a bit of language and vulgarity. I haven't heard any teen reactions to this book yet so I don't know if they enjoyed it as much. As I said, I wasn't sure it was a young adult book. There is a mystery to solve (what does the code mean) and Tom grows as a person (at least in some areas). Overall, it was great. I would give this to older teen boys. But usually they shop on the adult side of the library or just don't read at all. Le sigh


Frank Portman said…
Thanks a lot for the review, Zee. Glad you liked the writing. I don't have any data (and I don't know how you'd go about getting some) but my impression from feedback I've got from the web and at readings is that my book's readers are pretty equally divided between the "target" audience and people formerly in that target.

That said, I did not think of any target at all when I was writing it. My intention was to write a less stereotypical, more interesting, and more resonant nerd/loser character than the usual, and my theory was that communicating this experience well and with enough jokes would enable the book to transcend superficial generational and pop cultural differences. I believe that has pretty much worked out the way I had hoped.

As for teenagers, the book seems to have the most resonance for "rock and roll" people (boys and girls, too: really.) I guess that's true of the "adults" too.

Thanks again for writing about my book.
alexgirl said…
I loved King Dork. You're actually the only other person I know who's read it, so it's nice to have another opinion. I love snarky characters and wit, and this was THAT. I know what you mean about Gen X vs. YA, but I think teens would "get it."
i thought it was really funny and unique. Great review, Zee!
zeelibrarian said…
Oh, I am so embarrassed that FP actually read my review. It's an honor, but a littler rattling. I never imagined you would read it, Mr. Portman, butI suppose maybe you track these reviews. And I had two grammatical errors. Ouch! Oh well, they have been fixed. Thanks for visiting my blog:-)

Alex, nice to have you back. Maybe teens would appreciate different things about the book. A lot of the bands mentioned are almost too good, in my opinion, to be appreciated by teens with some of the music that is popular today. Oh, that makes me sound old :-(
Maureen said…
Hey Zee

I read this a few months ago and had the exact same thing happen as happens every time I read Catcher in the Rye, which was I closed the book still trying to figure out whether I liked him or hated him. Kind of a fun bit of resonance there.


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