Monday, January 07, 2008

King Dork--Frank Portman

This book is one of my top 3 reads for 2007 based on enjoyment and marveling at the writer's skill.

Tom Henderson starts his sophomore year at Hillmont High School with no expectations of education or enjoyment. He's as low socially as you can get, the "King Dork," adopting a heavy black coat and copies of Today's Mercenary to at least keep the other students' hands off him if he can't get them to stop calling him by the nickname of "Chi-Mo." "Chi-Mo" is short for "child molester" which comes from the unfortunate results of the 7th grade professional aptitude test that marked Tom for the clergy. School administration is almost as bad as the students--while the teachers don't hit you, they encourage other students to hit you. It's hell being small, introspective and unathletic and male in high school. He's got one friend, Sam Hellerman, with whom he plans out their bands despite the fact that neither really plays an instrument. His mom's just absent, his stepdad's an annoying ex-hippie, and his sister's okay but young. Tom's got nothing going for him but endurance, wit, and cleverness.

A bright spot appears when Tom stumbles onto his late father's library. Dad died in a mysterious accident/possible murder several years before, and Tom starts reading his books as a way to get to know him in retrospect. However, a mystery develops around his dad's copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which has numerous notes, a mass card for the funeral of Timothy J. Anderson, a note written in code, and one underlined passage. Tom starts trying to put together a 35 year old mystery as he struggles to get through school, figure out the identity of the mysterious Fiona with whom he made out at a party, and get the band into shape.

So it's a book about the hell of adolescence, longing for connection and sex, the redemptive power and connection of reading, snark on The Catcher In the Rye , and bands. And all that would be great, but Portman's created a smart, likable character in Tom and the whole book is a 344 page exercise in wit. I was pulled in and could not put it down, and laughing publicly. It's hard to find a quote to give you, because the book is so well constructed that it draws you in and you'd take things out of context, but I like this. It's from a scene between Tom and his parents after his mom flips when she finds the lyrics to the song "Thinking of Suicide?":

"My poor inept parental units. Once again, their opening line wasn't the topic sentence, and everyone ended up confused. They were trying to have the suicide talk and somehow it got mixed up with the drug talk....When my mom is in crazy mode, it's just not possible to talk to her reasonably. Still I gave it a shot, trying to make it as simple as possible.

'I'm not on drugs and I'm not going to kill myself,' I said. And it was true. I really wasn't. Though I couldn't tell you why not.

No one knew what to say. Then Little Big Tom cleared his throat and filled in some of the background.

My own cleverness had tripped me up. Way back, I had needed an excuse for why I never spent much time at home, particularly after school. The real reason was that LBT kind of freaked me out back then, and I felt so uncomfortable with the whole vibe of the Henderson-Tucci household that even the ghastly pall of Hellerman Manor seemed preferable to it. So I invented a series of clubs I was supposed to be in. plausible ones, like the Chess Club, Rocketry Club, Monty Python Club, The Middle-earthlings, or the Trekster Gods, an sometimes crazy ones that I would make up for my own amusement, like the Caulking and Stripping Club or the Doorknob Appreciation Society, otherwise known as the Knob-heads. Not that they ever paid attention to what the clubs were called. My brilliant humor, once again wasted.

Ironically, part of the reason I started hanging out at home more, in addition to the fact that we couldn't do band activities at Sam Hellerman's, was that I had started to warm up to Little Big Tom, even actually almost kind of liked being around him sometimes. But to them it looked like I had suddenly lost interest in all the clubs and afterschool activities. That was a Danger Sign. Then they found the lyrics and pamphlet and that had tipped the whole thing over. I screwed up. And now I was looking at a vast stretch of inept suicide-watch activity from the parental units for some time to come." (159, 161-162)

No comments: