High school is the great, universal American experience, and even decades later there are few subjects I warm to more quickly than a juicy account of that traumatic rite of passage. None has made me laugh more than King Dork, the brainy, multilayered, outrageous, and compassionate first novel by Frank Portman.
”I don’t command a nerd army, or preside over a realm of the socially ill-equipped,” narrator Tom Henderson, the eponymous hero, announces. ”I’m small for my age, young for my grade, uncomfortable in most situations, nearsighted, skinny, awkward, and nervous. And no good at sports. So Dork is accurate. The King part is pure sarcasm, though: there’s nothing special or ultimate about me. I’m generic.”
Not exactly. To start, he’s a crack-up. Portman understands everything about this wonderful and complex character, who, like most disaffected teens, is both relentlessly cynical and softer-hearted than he would like. Since his dad died six years ago in a suspicious car accident, Tom has lived with his clueless mom (”Basically, she is a traditional suburban mom with a thin veneer of yesterday’s counterculture not too securely fastened to the outside”), his goofy hippie stepdad — one of the sweetest father figures of recent literature — and a prickly younger sister, Amanda, who’s caught in her own adolescent transition between Harriet the Spy and ”budding bitch-princess.”
But Portman’s focus is Tom’s life at Hillmont High, ”which somehow manages to be horrifying and tedious at the same time.” Tom and his equally nerdy best friend Sam Hellerman devise logos and album titles (Margaret? It’s God. Please Shut Up) for a mostly imaginary band, which cycles through 25 different names in the course of the book. Their other pastime, of course, is avoiding social humiliation. Tom recently deflected bullies by flashing guns-and-ammo magazines. He’s been less successful evading ”Make-out/Fake-outs,” in which a cute girl decides ”it would be fun to put her arm around you and pretend to be hitting on you to see what you would do, with everyone laughing at you the whole time.”
It’s easy to lampoon high school, but to set in motion an intricate and engrossing plot involving elaborate conspiracies, The Catcher in the Rye, ”at least half a dozen mysteries, plus dead people, naked people, fake people, teen sex, weird sex, drugs, ESP, Satanism, books, blood, Bubblegum, guitars, monks, faith, love…” is a feat, and it’s one Portman engineers with the gleeful flourish of a born storyteller. Tom’s idea of a happy ending — unreciprocal oral sex with ”semihot” girls under Holly Hobbie coverlets, a non-imaginary band (”first album: Slut Heaven”), social détente at school, emotional détente at home — isn’t mine. But in the politically incorrect adolescent context so masterfully evoked in this terrific novel, I was rooting for him all the way.