By Frank Portman
Delacorte Press, $16.95, 344 pages
REVIEWED BY CLIVE DAVIS
“Young adult fiction” is an awkward concept. After all, would publishers ever think of advertising their wares as “old fiction” or “middle-aged-but-still-energetic fiction?” Even though we live in a world devoted to the cult of youth, some of us cling to the old-fashioned notion that you are either an adult or you are not, and that those over 21 should not read Harry Potter on the subway.
Which is a way of saying that I am not entirely sure Frank Portman’s publishers are doing him a favor by launching his debut novel into the niche upward market. For one thing, it would take a singularly precocious 15-year-old to come to grips with the complexity of the narrative. (The sexual encounters are also a long way from Nancy Drew.) More importantly, this is a book which — like one of its inspirations, “The Catcher In The Rye” — deserves to be read by real grown-ups, too.
For those of you who are not devotees of punk rock, Frank Portman is the fortysomething lead singer of the cult East Bay band called the Mr. T Experience (otherwise known as MTX). No, I don’t care for punk either, but I am a fan of blogging, which is how I first became acquainted with Mr. Portman, who runs his own site under the title Dr. Frank’s What’s-It. (Try Googling “Dr. Frank,” and you will see that he comes up ahead of any of your fancy shrinks, plastic surgeons and think tank gurus.) Although he lives in the heart of blue-state-land, he is one of those September 11 Democrats who is still wondering when a large part of the left is going to come to its senses.
While he does not leap onto a soap box in the middle of “King Dork,” there is no mistaking the slightly unconventional tilt to his story-telling. Part mystery tale, part rite-of-passage novel, “King Dork” casts an unusually skeptical eye on the values of trendy, middle-class America. Mr. Portman’s main character, a gifted but classically shy and retiring high school student, Tom Henderson, cannot help spending much of his time rebelling against the Sixties-style philosophy of his hippie-ish mother, a widow, and her well-meaning but undeniably wet “partner.” Like most of his peers, Tom may be stumbling through the fog of adolescence, but he has very clear ideas about the kind of person he does not want to grow up to become.
Trying to summarize the plot is no easy matter. Having been told that his real father was killed in a road accident several years earlier, Tom stumbles across traces of an alternative explanation when he discovers a cache of Henderson Sr.’s old books in the basement. Chief among them is a worn copy of “The Catcher In The Rye,” a novel that serves as holy writ for Tom’s teachers as well as the adult world in general.
When he notices curious phrases written in the margins, Tom embarks on a tortuous quest involving codes, Biblical quotations, Catholic symbolism and, ultimately, the realization that his father’s demise may not have been an accident after all.
At times the intrigue is as multi-layered as a junior version of “The Name of the Rose.” The narrative may build slowly in the first eighty pages or so, but Mr. Portman has an assured touch when it comes to depicting schoolyard rituals, brilliantly capturing the blurred randomness of teen life.
There is a matter-of-factness to the business of romance that some will find shocking. It is a world where sensible, middle-class girls know all there is to know about oral sex, and where boys alternately throb with desire and launch into sustained bouts of bullying. As an advertisement for the public school system, it leaves something to be desired.
Tom is a hugely likeable observer, his often self-consciously ornate language fueled by regular encounters with a primer entitled “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.” A rock buff, he has his own band, the name of which seems to change every week. (My favorites are The Stoned Marmadukes and Tennis With Guitars.) Much of his energy goes into devising album titles straight out of Spinal Tap.
Yet he has a spiritual dimension, too: “I’m not any religion myself, but for the record, I’m pretty sure I do believe in God. It’s just a feeling I have. I can’t prove it, but since when are you supposed to prove a feeling? God is the only situation where they expect you to do that. (Though I have to say, the universe seems so flawlessly designed to be at my expense that I doubt it could be entirely accidental.) Even if I didn’t believe in God, though, I’d probably say I did just out of spite. To irritate people like my mom who think believing in God is tacky and beneath them.”
Mr. Portman juggles the romantic sub-plot with enormous skill, and his dry sense of humor is a delight. Some of the quirkiest lines are reserved for the playful glossary at the end. Entries range from “atheism” (“a religion for people who figure they probably already know everything there is to know about everything”) to the Vietnam War (“for The Most Annoying Generation, the most fascinating and important topic in the world. For everybody else, not.”) That kind of wit is definitely too good to be wasted on adults of tender years.
Clive Davis writes for the London Times. His weblog is at www.clivedavis-online.com.