Tuesday, January 6, 2015

King Dork, Approximately by Frank Portman

King Dork, Approximately is Frank Portman's third book. His second book is Andromeda Klein and his first is King Dork (see SETH CHRISTENFELD's GLW review here). King Dork, Approximately is the sequel to that first book, King Dork, which I highly recommend you read first. (I also think you should read Andromeda Klein, but not because it has anything to do with the respective King Dork's, but merely because it is, in my humble opinion, the finest of Portman's work.)

If you haven't read the original King Dork, you may safely continue reading this review, but I would move forward with caution. I will try to write the entire review without revealing any juicy or surprising details contained within the first volume, but I may not succeed. If I have to reveal something important, I will introduce it by shouting "SPOILER ALERT!" and jumping up and down while waving my arms. Still, you could miss it if you're reading cavalierly or if you get bored with what I'm saying and decide to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs. So be attentive, ok?

The King Dork books are narrated by Thomas Henderson who, because of the alphabetic proximity of their names, is best friends with Sam Hellerman. Thomas and Sam are in a band whose name changes rather frequently. In fact changing the band's name is whole point of being in the band as, at the outset of King Dork, neither Sam nor Thomas own instruments or know how to play the instruments they lack. The names vary (examples: Tennis with Guitars, Encyclopedia Satanica, I Hate this Jar) and suggest bands who play radically different types of music.

Tom has been victimized by a brutal public education experience in which the "psychotic normals" terrorize anyone who doesn't fit in to their definition of fitting in. Meanwhile, school authority figures look on approvingly and sometimes participate in the terrorizing. Besides escaping into their fantasy bands, Tom and Sam develop other coping strategies. Sam, for instance, can develop a nose bleed at will, grossing out those around him and earning him a free pass from gym class boxing bouts. Tom pretends to be into guns, ammo, throwing stars, and army jackets to keep the normals wary that he might just go off at any moment.

Tom's home life is also challenging though not nearly as brutal. His mother is distant and sad while his hippie-therapist stepfather (referred to affectionately as Little Big Tom) speaks almost entirely in heartwarming aphorisms. Tom's dad is a former police officer who was killed or maybe committed suicide under mysterious circumstances.

The beauty of both these books is in Tom's narration. He's funny and deeply opinionated, but also self-deprecatory and introspective. Here's a little sample in which Tom is meditating on his mother's character after she encourages him to be more normal:
But seriously, if my mom, as currently constituted, were reverse-aged to fifteen years old and tossed into a tank fully stocked with normal people, what did she think would happen? The tank's waters would churn red with her blood, that's what.
The angry, sarcastic wit is remarkably consistent across both books and really, as far as Tom's character development is concerned, they work well as a single story. If you've read King Dork already, you're ready. If you haven't, read it quick. It's important not just for the continuity of the plot and characters, but because without knowledge of the first, you'll miss out on a lot of clever jokes and word-play that run through both volumes.

If there's one big change between King Dork and King Dork, Approximately it's that the latter book worries less about a traditional story structure. In the original Tom is trying to solve the mystery of his father's death and that provides a kind of scaffolding for his ranting. In the sequel, Tom is really just relating his life without the scaffolding, freed from the sense that it's all going somewhere. It does, in the end, go somewhere, so don't sweat that. It just doesn't try very hard to get there, and that, I think, makes it even stronger than the first.


Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if the title is a nod or a reference to Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately?" That would be very cool!

Seth Christenfeld said...

It is--it's directly referenced in the book.

mr chompchomp said...

Thanks, Seth. The book is loaded with cultural references, especially musical ones. There are also a ton of literary references, to everything from Jane Austen to Dune to Philip K. Dick to William Burroughs.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Man, it sounds great!