Move Over Holden (Forgive Me!!): KING DORK is Here

I just sat down to write about Frank Portman’s novel King Dork, and I’m actually kind of wordless, if that’s the version of speechless that’s applicable to a blog.  I don’t know if this is because the book was so amazing (it was) or because the plot is kind of complicated to summarize (you’ll see) or—and if I’m being honest with myself, this is probably at the root of my hesitation—because I fully recognize myself in King Dork’s descriptions of English-teachers-who-are-madly-in-love-with-Catcher-in-the-Rye.  You know that feeling when you wince and laugh at the same time?  That was me.  As Portman writes about these Holden-Caulfield-worshippers:

It’s kind of like a cult.  [Teachers] live for making you read [The Catcher in the Rye].  When you do read it, you can feel them all standing behind you in a semicircle wearing black robes with hoods, holding candles.  They’re chanting “Holden, Holden, Holden…” and they’re looking over your shoulder with these expectant smiles, wishing they were the ones discovering the earth-shattering joys of The Catcher in the Rye for the very first time…I’ve been forced to read it like three hundred times, and don’t tell anyone but I think it sucks. (12)

So, um, yah.  There’s really no denying that I’m in the Holden Caulfield cult.  Perhaps the only thing that saves me—just a little—is that I don’t teach high school, and school authorities would probably have a pretty decent-sized conniption if I introduced ol’ Holden to the eighth grade required reading list.  But still.  I read page twelve with a little cringe of self-recognition, but also a pretty decent-sized guffaw.  Needless to say, I pressed on.

King Dork, born Tom Henderson and often called Chi-mo (an embarrassing nickname that has to do with clergy and those future-job-detector tests you take in school to discover your true calling) narrates King Dork.  He’s in a band that is renamed twenty-five times during the five-month span of the book.  He has one friend and spends a good chunk of his days trying to avoid the endless humiliations that psychopathetic “Normal” kids wreak upon him.  He spends most of the novel trying to unravel the secrets surrounding his father’s death, using a collection of his father’s old high school books, including, yes, the infamous Catcher.  He spends the rest of the book working on band improvement—in addition to the band naming and album design, he does manage to improve musically a little bit, moving from the two-man show featuring a clarinet and acoustic guitar that he has going in August to a noteworthy (actually, life-changing) performance at his school’s Festival of Lights in December—and, of course, trying to figure out girls.

I know it’s super-cliché to say that a book is “laugh-out-loud funny,” but here’s the thing: I actually did laugh out loud while I was reading King Dork, and that really doesn’t happen very often.  I haven’t read a book this good—this smart and original and weird and honest and, yes, “laugh-out-loud funny”—in a long time.  It is the best YA book I read this year.  Maybe the best book period.  It’s awesome.  Go read it.  Seriously.  And Happy Holidays too.

[Portman, Frank. King Dork.  New York: Delacorte Press, 2006.]

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