Long live Frank Portman’s King Dork.
A certain subset of the population knows Frank Portman as Dr. Frank, the erudite leader of the long-running punk-pop band the Mr. T Experience, or MTX for short. In these circles, he is revered for his sharp hooks and sharper wit, both of which are put to good use in such should-be classics as “The Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful,” “We Hate All the Same Things,” and “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend,” to name but a very few. Dr. Frank has been plying his trade for the better part of two decades, but unfortunately, like most geniuses, he’s never really been acknowledged as such — until now. Sort of.
Finally, Portman is receiving the acclaim that has been so long overdue. He’s been the subject of fawning features and reviews in Entertainment Weekly and USA Today, and stores can’t keep his stuff on the shelves. But the sudden onslaught of affection is not for his music. It’s for his debut novel, King Dork, a school year in the life of Tom Henderson.
King Dork is meant as sort of an anti-Catcher in the Rye, and Portman regularly uses Tom’s inner monologue to revel in his distaste for that book. But here’s the thing: It ends up being a modern and arguably better (yes, I said it) version of the J.D. Salinger staple. Which I suspect Portman (or at least his editor at Delacorte Press) was aware of, since King Dork’s cover is a riff on the iconic look of Catcher.
Like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Tom — better known as Chi-Mo or Moe — is one of those kids who will never refer to his high school years as “the good old days.” Why? Because, as he says, “I’m small for my age, young for my grade, uncomfortable in most situations, nearsighted, skinny, awkward, and nervous. And no good at sports … There’s nothing special or ultimate about me. I’m generic.”
Except that, in Portman’s capable hands, he isn’t. Tom might not fit in with the so-called “normal” kids — the jocks and rich kids, as well as their significant others and various minions — but it’s clear that he’s meant for bigger and better things. High school is just a brief prison sentence for him, but fortunately he has a good cell mate in Sam Hellerman, his alphabetical-order best friend since the fourth grade. Their version of passing time by lifting weights in the prison yard is coming up with new bands that they are ostensibly members of, though the book is almost half over before they actually acquire instruments and start to figure out how to play them.
For the most part, these new bands are tiny little worlds for Tom and Sam to escape into, and they turn them into incredibly detailed fantasies, imagining new monikers as well as album and song titles, logos, cover art, and even how their names will be listed in the credits. They do plenty of escaping, coming up with 25 new bands between August and December alone. (My current favorites are the Elephants of Style, Tennis with Guitars, and the Underpants Machine.)
But Tom has plenty of other places to escape to. “It’s actually a complicated story,” he admits at the outset, “involving at least half a dozen mysteries.” The most pressing of these is his father’s death and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the collection of books Tom discovers in the basement. The only rival to that puzzler is the eternal unknown for high school (and older) guys: the opposite sex. Tom’s budding musical career is mixed in along the way, seemingly as a palate cleanser, until the book’s climax, when it turns out that the answer (or the key, at least) to all these mysteries and more is simple: “Start a band. Or go around saying you’re in a band, which is, let’s face it, pretty much the same thing.”
Of course, that didn’t completely work for Portman, at least in terms of record sales and worldwide recognition. His popularity only went up when he took a brief break from being in a band. But I guess going around saying you’re a writer doesn’t have the same effect. Actually, I don’t guess; I know. If only I’d had King Dork 15 years ago. (I guess I’ll just have to keep it handy for my son.)
King Dork is being aimed at the “young adult” market, and it should be: Hidden in plain sight among Portman’s prose are enough book and album recommendations to fill up a few shopping carts at Amazon.com. They’re the kind of cool-older-brother selections that, based on King Dork’s sales already, should make for a much more well rounded lower end of the 18-to-34 demographic in the next year or so.
But that “young adult” label doesn’t mean everyone else can’t crack King Dork’s spine; if you’ve been to high school, you’re qualified. If you hated high school, even better.