I finished King Dork, by Frank Portman, a week or so ago while I was on a plane. I can’t believe that I’ve been too busy to post on it until now. But maybe you can believe it. Anyway, this fine tome was a gift from DJ Cayenne, I think for my birthday (which was last spring). My goodness I take a while getting around to stuff, don’t I?
I know the DJ has posted on this one, but I haven’t read his post yet; I’m still sticking to my theory that any posts I write must not be tainted by those who’ve gone before me. So I’ll read his when I’m done with this. Hopefully we won’t say the same things. Or really different things.
King Dork, a/k/a Chi-Mo, a/k/a Sheepie, a/k/a lots of other names that aren’t his real name (Tom Henderson), is a high school student at Hillmont High School in Santa Carla, California. His father is dead, he’s got a weird stepdad who tries to be hip and cool, and he is antogonized by a verbally abusive principal. And Chi-Mo spends all day, every day, trying not to get beat up by the “normal” kids and thinking up new band names, band member names, and album names for the imaginary band that he fronts with his “friend” (i.e., the only person who he believes doesn’t hate him), Sam Hellerman (who has grown up as Henderson’s alphabetical order buddy).
As I read this book, trying not to think of Chi-Mo as a dork (he is our narrator and protagonist, after all), I realized that I used to do a lot of the same things he did when I was in high school. Not worry about getting beat up, but come up with band names and album covers. I even had an album cover for our fictional band “Trooper” entered into the Scholastic Art Awards Competition. It was awesome: an American flag for a backdrop (inspired, ironically enough, by Def Leppard’s British flag muscle tee’s), with a black Gibson Explorer coming out at you, and “TROOPER” written across the bottom in black stencil. Fine perspective drawing, if I say so myself, and not too shabby with the tempera paints, either.
So I can’t, in good faith, say that these activities make a guy a dork. Doing so would undermine all of the street cred that I’ve worked so hard to amass over the years. Besides, by the end of the book, I don’t think you view Chi-Mo as a dork. Sure, he’s obsessed and infatuated by some unusual things, but I think he proves his mettle as a cool dude by the time you get to the end of the story, no matter what criteria you would base such a determination on.
Without getting too much into the story itself, I’ll disclose that Chi-Mo becomes obsessed with his late father’s collection of books, including his copy of Catcher in the Rye. Chi-Mo hates Catcher in the Rye and the cult of people inspired by it, but he is intrigued by some notes, scribbles and stains he finds in the copy that belonged to his father. And he works with Sam Hellerman to try to get to the bottom of the cryptic codes contained in his late father’s books. And it leads to a pretty interesting denouement. That’s French, by the way. Which leads me to my favorite, laugh-out-loud passage in the book, when Chi-Mo is talking with Yasmynne Schmick during the last fifteen minutes of Advanced French class, when the kids are required to speak only in French. I know it sounds like the old Steve Martin bit, but it had me rolling around laughing, as the conversation drifted into statements like “all the world very much loves the automobile who calls himself a cat”, and “our little green hat is orange on the head of this very interesting horse”. Maybe you had to be there, but I dug it.
And I’ll close with these comments: (1) this is the second book I’ve read in recent memory in which a young boy is obsessing over a book (see The Shadow of the Wind), and (2) I wholeheartedly expect, when I read Mr. DJ’s post, to read of his disappointment that Chi-Mo doesn’t even list the Clash in his listing of the greatest rock-and-roll bands of all time (although I suspect he still liked the book anyway).