I just finished reading King Dork by Frank Portman. Frank Portman is the lead singer and songwriter for a pop-punk band called The Mr. T Experience that I have never heard of and I’ve heard of a lot of bands (although not a lot of pop-punk bands, it seems).
I tell you this to illustrate that Mr. Portman (he prefers Dr. Frank) knows a thing or two about naming bands and naming albums.
I tell you that because it’s one of the fun features of his debut book, King Dork which came out in 2006. Tom Henderson is King Dork. Sometimes people at school call him Mo. Which is short for Chi-Mo. Which is short for “Child Molester”. Which is a nickname he got when his seventh grade career aptitude test suggested he might join the clergy.
Tom’s friend is Sam Hellerman. Tom and Sam spend far more time naming their dream band than actually playing any instruments. At the start of the book they are in Baby Batter with Tom as Guitar Guy… on guitar and Sam on “Base and Scientology”.
Throughout the term the band goes through a number of permutations including Ray Bradbury’s Love Camel (Moe-Moe on guitar, Scammy Sammy on Bass and Callisthenics) and The Elephants of Style (Guitar: Mot Juste. Bass and Animal Husbandry: Sam Enchanted Evening. First Album: Devil Warship.). Don’t worry if you have trouble keeping up. There’s a valuable and hilarious ‘Bandography’ in the appendix.
The entire book covers August to December of Tom’s sophomore year in high school. It may seem like a relatively short space of time, but if you have any memory at all of 10th grade (my fifth form) you will know that a lot can happen. Over the course of the book, Tom uncovers secrets about his father’s death, goes into therapy, beats up a bully, reads Brighton Rock (“the best book ever written”), reaches second base, rounds third, is hospitalized with a suspected skull fracture and performs in a Battle of the Bands as lead singer in The Chi-Mos! (First album: Balls Deep).
Among all the things Tom finds awful about school there is one teacher-imposed ritual in particular that he can’t stand.
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.
Too late, man. I mean, I’ve been around the Catcher in the Rye block. I’ve been forced to read it like three hundred times, and don’t tell anyone but I think it sucks.
Of course, Tom has far more in common with Holden Caulfield than he knows. Mainly, they are both unreliable narrators. I don’t think I had even heard the term when I read The Catcher in the Rye. I took everything that Holden said at face value and never gave a thought to the idea that he might be in the middle of a mental health breakdown.
Years on, I’m a little more tuned in to the idea that a teenage narrator may not be in full possession of either his wits or the facts. In fact Tom Henderson probably knows and understands less than every other character in the novel, including his friend, Sam Hellerman.
And yet, despite Tom’s failure to grasp the truth, despite his sullen refusal to communicate clearly with almost anyone, despite his inability to identify his own shortcomings, he is an engaging and, even, charming hero. He doesn’t say much out loud, but the things that he wants to say–the things he thinks about saying–are witty and wonderful.
I used to think an unreliable narrator implied intent. The narrator was deliberately trying to mislead me. But Tom Henderson, like HC before him is as clueless as the rest of us were at the same age, fumbling around trying to form the relationships which will humiliate us the least.
King Dork is a great book. If you’re thinking about offering it to a young teen to read, you should know that it contains scenes of teenage sex and drug use. They’ll definitely want to read it when you tell them that.