King Dork by Frank Portman

#25 in my book challenge for the year, and #1 in my YA-centric summer reading challenge was King Dork by Frank Portman, which I first saw recommended at Blog of a Bookslut. King Dork is Tom Henderson, a sub-normal high school kid who spends a lot of his days trying to avoid getting beaten up or ridiculed. Things get complicated for him after he discovers his dead dad’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye, kisses a mystery girl at a party, and gets his own guitar. Tom and his alphabetical order friend Sam Hellerman have been talking about being in a band for years. Once they actually get guitars, they discover the real challenge:

I don’t know how real bands manage to have three or more people all play the same thing at the same time–it was clearly beyond our capabilities.

Like David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, this is a teen-boy story that at times sounds a little too knowing. But I found it so funny and likeable that I forgave the occasional lapse in voice. I was pleasantly reminded of the television show Freaks and Geeks.

A reader review that Portman links to from his blog chided the book for its sexism.

…but what of the ladies? There is not a single admirable woman or girl in this novel, not even any hint that perhaps women are more than simply things to look at. They all come across as crazy in one way or another, with very few (non-physical) redeemable qualities.

I didn’t find the female characters crazy and unredeemed. I think Portman did a good job conveying how baffled Tom was by them, which said more about Tom than them. I found the female characters complex, funny, and demanding, especially his mom, his shrink, and his younger sister. Yes, one of the things the main character obsesses about is sex with girls. But when he actually begins to be sexual with girls, they are the ones calling the shots, and demanding physical and emotional things of him, not the other way ’round. In the first sexual encounter in the book, the girl had Tom bring her to orgasm, and she did not reciprocate. There are some later blowjobs, which the previously quoted review dismisses as meaningless. I saw them as part of teenagers learning about sexuality. Additionally, while it might seem biased or gratuitous that there was fellatio but not cunnilingus, I think that’s for practical reasons–the former is usually lower on the sexual learning curve than the latter.

King Dork the book, and King Dork the character, have a lot going on. While the narrative wanders, the story and its characters are always engaging, and I frequently laughed out loud. I think my favorite character was Little Big Tom, King Dork’s stepdad. “Ramoning” and “glad all over” are hilarious and apt euphemisms. I found the ending satisfying, even while it’s not tidy, and perhaps because it isn’t.

Further reading:
The King Dork Reading List, and Discography, both with Tom Henderson commentary

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