Skip to main content

King Dork


King Dork

A common problem I find in young adult novels that are set in high schools is the attempt to create a universal high school, a place where the reader can look around and say, "That's where I go/went to school." Unfortunately, many books fail and I end up thinking, "My high school was nothing like that." Granted, a good author can make you understand what it's like to be part of that kind of environment, but so often I find the author merely assuming that I can relate and they do no work to guide me through the situation.

I'm pleased to report that Frank Portman's inaugural foray into the world of young adult fiction, KING DORK, eschews the tired endeavor of painting a familiar high school experience for the tantalizing effort of recreating something infinitely more vivid, believable and recognizable: our classmates.

Tom Henderson, the titular KING DORK and pseudo-slacker, has a single friend in the world (comparable pseudo-slacker Sam Hellerman). Together, they love rock and roll and create the autobiographies of rock bands they'll bring to life one day (just as soon as they learn how to play instruments worthy of a rock band, not their current combination of acoustic guitar and clarinet). They endure the ridicule and calumny of classmates and faculty alike. And like many close friends, they have developed their own unique method of communication. When Tom finds a stash of his dead father's high school books, he becomes somewhat obsessed with deciphering mysterious messages left behind in a copy of CATCHER IN THE RYE. (Note: There are many layers to KING DORK and I recommend multiple reads to catch them all. While reading CATCHER is not required to understand this book, you'll enjoy the parallels more if you use CATCHER as a springboard.)

The book offers several fun mysteries (Does Fiona, the girl Tom made out with at a party, really exist or did he imagine her? What do the strange ciphers in his father's books mean?) that are bundled with a dead-on study of character and, together, they make for a great read to the last page.

The plot surrounding the mystery of his father's books is a little slow in coming, but Portman does such a terrific job of making the reader invest in the characters that it's worth the wait. In KING DORK, Portman doesn't attempt to define a high school experience that everyone can relate to; rather he marshals a cavalcade of characters that are instantly recognizable.

This is not to say that KING DORK relies on stereotypes and archetypes. Quite the opposite. Whereas stereotypes thrive on broad generalizations, Portman employs the best strategies of pointillism to create vivid, original characters. It is these small details --- their quirks, their nuances, their idiosyncrasies --- where you'll find uncanny resemblances to people with whom you've shared class. (Tom and Sam create MANY rock bands throughout the course of the book; few survive a chapter. And with each creation we learn the name of the band, their stage names, what instruments they play, and what the title of the band's first album will be.)

KING DORK is a powerful debut from a weapons-grade voice in fiction. Let's hear more from Frank Portman again soon.

Reviewed by Brian Farrey on April 11, 2006

King Dork
by Frank Portman

  • Publication Date: February 12, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0385734506
  • ISBN-13: 9780385734509