Sunday, July 30, 2006

King Dork by Frank Portman

Over a certain age, people who grew up and went to school in Western countries can be conveniently divided into two groups: those who read The Catcher in the Rye and found it whiny, pretentious, and self-involved, and those who read The Catcher in the Rye and found it meaningful, revolutionary, and life-altering, only to realize later, once the really scary hormones got washed out their system, that it is in fact whiny, pretentious, and self-involved. Frank Portman's debut novel, King Dork, will appeal to both groups. It is, at one and the same time, a scathing critique of Salinger's timeless yet tedious masterpiece, a hilarious parody of it, and a loving homage to it. It's also the funniest book I've read in quite some time.

King Dork is the self-inflicted, private nickname of fourteen-year-old Tom Henderson, who in real life has far worse nicknames to contend with. At his high school, Tom is very nearly at the bottom of the food chain--only the kid who has to wear a football helmet to protect his fragile bones and the unfortunately named Pierre Butterfly Cameroon look up to him. He has only one friend, Sam Hellerman, to whom he is bound by a relatively equivalent level of dorkiness, but even more strongly by the fact that their surnames followed one another on class lists for most of junior high. At home, Tom's wannabe hippie mother downs highballs and smokes joints for breakfast while earnestly exhorting him not to experiment with drugs, while his well-meaning, genuine hippie stepfather tries to bond with Tom over a shared love of rock and roll, only to dig himself further and further into the generation gap with every word that leaves his mouth. Worst of all, no matter what English class he's placed in, Tom can't avoid the American high-schooler's rite of passage--reading The Catcher in the Rye.
The Catcher in the Rye is this book from the fifties. It is every teacher's favorite book. ... It changed their lives when they were young. As kids, they carried it with them everywhere they went. They solemnly resolved that, when they grew up, they would dedicate their lives to spreading The Word.

It's kind of like a cult.

They live for making you read it. 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.
But for all the disdain that he heaps on The Catcher in the Rye, Tom's life is changed by the book--by one specific edition of it, to be precise. Looking through some old boxes in the basement, Tom comes across his father's copy of Salinger's novel. The elder Henderson was a policeman who was killed in what may or may not have been an accident, and his copy of Catcher contains cryptic numbers, notes, and scraps of paper that might shed some light on the circumstances of his death.

Only, not really. The mystery aspect of King Dork--and apart from the death of Tom's father there are several other mysteries to unravel, including the question of why a beautiful and relatively normal girl decides to make out with Tom at a Halloween party--is probably where the novel is weakest, mainly because Tom isn't much of an investigator, or even that keen an observer. Like Holden Caulfield, Tom is locked into a set of prejudices and preconceptions--mainly a conviction that anyone approaching social normalcy is an evil psychopath--that color the way he sees the world and prevent him from noticing the obvious. And like The Catcher in the Rye, King Dork is written in a very tight first person, which crams us into Tom's head even as we recognize that this kid isn't nearly as smart or as world-weary as he thinks he is. King Dork is most enjoyable when Portman leaves the mystery plot on a slow boil in the background and just lets Tom be Tom--offering anthropological observations on the behavior of his peers ("It's a call-and-response game, the response [to 'who you callin' faggot, homo?'] being: 'I ain't no homo. Who you callin' homo, faggot?' This is a self-sustaining loop that can literally go on for hours if uninterrupted."), dreaming about girls both real and imaginary (and positing the existence of a hypothetical "Sex Alliance Against Society", in which the person you're having sex with sides with you against the general meanness of the world), going on at length about books and music and creating bands, again, both real and imaginary, with Sam Hellermen (the book ends with a list of Sam and Tom's imaginary band names, which include such gems as Ray Bradbury's Love-Camel, Green Sabbath and We Have Eaten All the Cake).

In any novel with an unreliable narrator, there's a very delicate balancing act that needs to be maintained between occupying the protagonist's headspace and allowing the readers to reach their own conclusions about him. It's a failure to maintain that balance that is, in my opinion, the main reason that The Catcher in the Rye, in spite of being a brilliant, masterful and (for its time) ground-breaking exploration of a lost, lonely kid's psyche, doesn't work as a novel. Lurking behind the teenaged Holden's disillusionment with and fear of the compromises of adulthood is the adult Salinger's disappointment with them, and the intensity, the grandeur that he bestows on Holden's plight forces us to view a character who should, by all rights, have been pitiable as a tragic hero. Frank Portman has obviously learned from Salinger's mistakes (and apparently doesn't suffer from Salinger's well-documented hang-ups). His use of humor brings us closer to Tom, while at the same time allowing us to maintain the minimal distance required to see the kid as he is, and to recognize how wrong, how self-involved, how uncomplicated, his viewpoint can sometimes be.

Which is not to say that Portman doesn't occasionally stumble. He rather belabors the point on those occasions when Tom experiences empathy for others (an emotion which he describes as feeling sorry for himself while pretending to be someone else, and really, Portman is being more than a little disingenuous when a kid whose vocabulary includes the word 'callipygian' can't put a name to empathy when he experiences it). And as I've said, the mystery plotlines are King Dork's weakest aspect, primarily because they force us to accept Tom's descriptions of his teachers, his classmates, and his parents at face value. We have to believe that in Tom's high-school, tenth graders spend their English lessons copying chapters out of books and using perfectly ordinary words in sentences, or that a PE teacher could get away with letting a beating go on for several minutes while he watches in pleasure, or that one can get AP credit for making collages. If we don't accept that Tom is capable of accurately describing the basic facts of his environment, then the mystery is rendered meaningless. If, on the other hand, we buy the picture Tom paints for us, then the novel is bled of its immediacy. It becomes, not a touching look into a smart but inexperienced boy's head, but a funny yet heartless satire, which takes place in an alternate universe where teenagers are truly capable of sustained, intense cruelty, instead of the haphazard, thoughtless kind that most of us experienced. The meeting points between these two different and mutually exclusive novels--the teen memoir and the mystery--are dissonant, jarring us out of the narrative in much the same way that the two scenes involving adult characters came close to shattering the central gimmick in Brick.

Happily, Portman seems to have realized as much. Towards the end of the novel, he downplays the mystery, and Tom's narrative climaxes not with the unmasking of a killer but with the performance of his only-slightly-imaginary band at the school talent show--a scene so hilarious that I was laughing out loud and gasping for breath as I read it. Portman also avoids the standard teen novel/movie pitfall (which Tom, naturally enough, lampoons) of ending the story with his character transformed into a popular, sexy, well-adjusted adult. At the end of King Dork, Tom is more popular than he was at its beginning, but he still isn't popular. There are several girls in his orbit, but none who are willing to be seen with him in public (much less form a Sex Alliance Against Society with him). There's the suggestion of a potential social group he might join, but Sam Hellerman is still his only friend. He has a better relationship with his mother and stepfather, but they're still loopy hippies. King Dork is, for Tom, only a first and rather tentative step towards adulthood, but its greatest significance is that in making it, Tom recognizes that such steps exist, that nicknames aren't destiny, and that the unhappiness you feel at fourteen won't necessarily follow you for the rest of life. It's more than Holden Caulfield ever managed.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece of writing!:) Makes me want to read the book!

(Also, to use the word callipygian in my Sex Alliances Against Society)

Thanks for the work!

Hagay

ben peek said...

i liked CATCHER IN THE RYE, though i neither thought it pretentious or deep and meaningful. i just thought it episodic.

Tricia L said...

I rememebr reading Catcher In the Rye. I remember wondering why the canadian government found fit to include such a bland, non-book p.o.s. in the curriculum... I would have to think more of it to find it pretentious, etc...

You'd have to tie me down and glue my eyeballs open before I'll waste time from my life to read it again. Or offer me something above $100,000.00/

I'm not in either camp. I just thought the book was too stupid/not good enough to be included in my curruculum. And I was all of 14 1/2 15 years at the time.

No, I'm not feeling bitter about that...

Sadako said...

Sorry, this is a super old post that I'm commenting on but I finished reading this a couple months ago and loved it. I agree with your review, though--the mystery aspect is weak, there are some plot points that don't entirely work, but I really enjoyed it and haven't yet found anyone else who liked it.

Anonymous said...

i hate this book, its too har for me to read but my teacher is making me

Anonymous said...

I thought this book was horrible. It seemed to have no rising action or climax. You could skip to any part in the book and it sounded the same. He is always coming up with band names. its annoying and distracts you from the actual book.

Anonymous said...

i love the book. the lack of plot makes the plot in a way. i think it's different and really enticing. his writing style is amazing you can get the best quotes from this book.

kamagra said...

I feel this book is aimed at people my age late 30s more than at teenagers.

baeraad said...

Read it based on this review. You're right, it's pretty hilarious.

I didn't worry too much about the mysteries - it seemed pretty clear that Tom was just playing at being a detective with zero chance of actually solving anything. I did have the same impression as you about the school curriculum, though. The bullying, and other people's general according-to-Tom uselessness, is one thing - it's easy to see that as his exaggeration of the behaviour we actually see from them firsthand. But he's oddly definite about how lessons are all about copying things from books, to the point where it seems like it's the actual, literal truth - in which case we should presumably believe that the Damn Dirty Hippies really did manage to take all the actual education out of the school system. And that kind of bothers me, because if that's so, then the novel is no longer a satire of modern silliness told by a smartass unreliable narrator, but a fairly hateful conservative screed.

Still, it's a minor wrinkle, I guess. For the most parts, I enjoyed Tom's cranky take on things. And I really liked seeing a teenage "loser" character being portrayed as just a person - not as a martyred saint persecuted out of jealousy, not as a subhuman skeezeball who totally deserves everything he gets, but just as a kid who's having a shitty time because he lacks the more or less arbitrary qualities that would help him have a somewhat less shitty time. He hasn't done anything to deserve the low status he has, and he hasn't done anything to deserve the high status he wants, and he realises both those things and is cynically philosophical about it. That was really refreshing to see.

I am now considering reading Catcher in the Rye. I may come to regret it.

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