Saturday, June 28, 2014

King Dork, Approximately--Am I missing the point?


Frank Portman returns with the sequel to King Dork: King Dork, Approximately. Tom Henderson is now in the second half of his sophomore year of high school, recovering from a head surgery after being beaten with a tuba by a group of students (for more explanation on this, you should probably read the first book). He begins his narration by saying, “So, I’m going to just pick up where I left off, if that’s all right with you,” breaking the fourth wall and bringing the reader along for part two of his high school journey.

The book begins during Christmas vacation where he and his best friend Sam Hellerman are practicing their band. I would tell you the band’s name, but it changes every other page. Tom explains that Sam is afraid of Y2K, dating the narration to 1999, though Tom references the present reader and future reader. He finds out that the district is closing their high school, Hillmont High, after everything that happened in the previous book. Tom is being transferred to Clearview while Sam is moving to Mission Hills, and this will be the first time the boys will be separated.

At Clearview, Tom appears to have a fresh start, making new friends and even gaining a girlfriend, but he doesn’t like the explosion of school spirit and instead focuses his time on his band and gaining advice from his stepfather Little Big Tom who has just separated from Tom’s mother. Tom’s outlook on social circles and sense of belonging doesn’t change in this book. As soon as he feels like he’s starting to fit in, one fist to the nose changes everything.

This book was not a quick read, and I often found myself putting it down and walking away. Perhaps it is because I am not a fifteen year old boy, but as a teacher of fifteen year old boys, I don’t see any of my students picking up this one and loving it. As a self-aware unreliable narrator (“put your trust in my gentle care”), Tom’s attempt at witticism often falls flat, and he is not believable as a self-proclaimed dork. Too often, he uses a word in a sentence and immediately questions if the word is correct. The constant repetition of “if…means what I think it does” is irritating, and the stereotypical nerd would be more confident in his vocabulary.

One area in which I had the most problem occurs with Tom’s ogling of young girls which is overly offensive. He refers to girls’ private parts as “a well-maintained garden of delights.” I wouldn’t doubt that the average teenage boy often thinks this way, but as a writer, one can make better choices and not promote the sexualization of teenage girls. References to sexual favors by both girls and boys in this book (in detail) are also inappropriate for this age group. Sam even has his own ranking system for girls and boys, referring to the “ideal of female beauty” as a waist-hip ratio of 0.7. I won’t even get into the apparent stitching on the front of every pair of blue jeans. Even Tom suggests you skip that part.

When Tom finds out he is going to Clearview, he changes the name to Queerview, without stepping foot in the school. For someone who hates to be judged, he places too much judgment on others and comes across more as a jerk than a sympathetic bottom feeder. Tom exclaims that he has “no interest at all in ‘fitting in’ with other them or ‘being accepted’ by them. On the contrary, I would very much enjoy their destruction.” While any normal person would take this as a serious cry for help, Tom has whined too much in the novel, and what could be considered a hint of future violence (i.e. Columbine) is dismissed as nothing more than child’s play, and that is not a good lesson to send our young people.

In the time it took to read this book, I could have read The Catcher in the Rye twice and connected with a protagonist who is much more dynamic as someone who doesn’t fit in.  In the end, Tom says it best: “It was kind of hard to tell what it was really getting at, to be honest.”

**FTC Full Disclosure: I received a free review copy from Random House in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any money for this review. **