Thursday, June 25, 2009

King Dork vs. Catcher in the Rye

Beware high school English teachers: If Catcher in the Rye is a standby of yours, King Dork challenges what’s become the sacred text of teen angst in the past—let’s say it—60 years (ouch!).

Part social satire, part mystery, and part tribute to ye olde Catcher, King Dork starts like any good adolescent taunt—or outright defacement, rather—sporting a dust jacket with the cover of Catcher scratched up and chiseled with a ball point pen.

It’s as if a bored high school kid had nothing else to do in class and resented the crazy adult teachers who assign teen angst literature from their youth for him to read.

That bored kid would be Tom, who stands in as our modern-day Holden. Not quite as eloquent or dark, and maybe not as insightful, but he's game to tear down the world around him with similar snarls of wit set to a drum beat of dweebish desires.

''I don't command a nerd army, or preside over a realm of the socially ill-equipped,'' Tom, aka King Dork, says. ''I'm small for my age, young for my grade, uncomfortable in most situations, nearsighted, skinny, awkward, and nervous. And no good at sports. So Dork is accurate. The King part is pure sarcasm, though: there's nothing special or ultimate about me. I'm generic.''

Alienation and its kissing cousin humiliation are the themes here—surprise!—all wrapped up in scratchy blankets of cynicism. And there's superiority, of course—because how to survive teen alienation and its depredations unless you believe you’re kick-ass superior (the King moniker isn’t pure sarcasm; it never is). High school is the one bonafide time in life when arrogance comes in handy.

Above all, though, King Dork is a pleasant read, a bit like an extended sit-com (say, a two-hour episode of Freaks and Geeks). In fact, the first 80 pages are essentially repeated four times and could easily spin through a few more times, like a rerun, except not quite.

The novel so conspicuously lacks a narrative arc or any true character change that Tom, who tells the story with a banter similar to Holden’s, even comments on the story’s lapses toward the end of the book—a sort of last-minute metafictional recompense that lets us know that the author’s editor and agent had qualms about the story’s loose episodic tendrils.

But the story is otherwise conventional, traveling through the usual high school pranks and pitfalls in a playful and nostalgically pleasant way for those of us who survived the unpleasantness of those glory years (or think we survived). Fast Times at Ridgemont High meets Juno meets Superbad.

Among the scariest pranks are “Make-out/Fake-outs,'' in which a cute girl decides ''it would be fun to put her arm around you and pretend to be hitting on you to see what you would do, with everyone laughing at you the whole time.''

Sound familiar? (If not, you’re blessed.)

Tom’s technique is to deflect bullies by flashing guns-and-ammo magazines—an effective strategy for a while, kind of like screaming while walking through a shopping mall. People keep their distance.

Although the booby traps of the high school are inherently predictable, the episodes of Tom and his one friend Sam make the novel memorable, even special. Tom and Sam spend most of their time making up imaginary rock bands—“Margaret? It's God. Please Shut Up”—and devising accompanying logos and album titles.

The duo cycles through 25 different names in the course of the book—all of them delightfully silly and grandiose (similar to your favorite rock n’ roll bands, in other words—such as author Frank Portman’s successful Bay Area punk band “The Mr. T Experience”).

It’s a nervous tic that’s actually a survival mechanism. A nerdy kid’s counterpoint to low status—flippin’ the bird to the popular kids in day dreams, a “just you wait until I’m playing arena shows.”

While Tom’s tone and language aren’t as erudite as Catcher, he strives for the same ironic, humble truth: find a way to cut through these crazy layers of phoniness that life serves up like cafeteria food and come out on top.

Like Holden, Tom finds himself dodging and despairing of the adults around him. His mother is a distant self-medicator (Sam is friends with Tom in part to steal her valium), and his stepfather is a well meaning but annoyingly goofy, aging hippie, who’s kind of sweet, but tries too hard to connect, so he doesn’t. But at least he tries.

His teachers are frequently negligent or misguided or downright weird (and all too often cultishly obsessed with Catcher). How could they be otherwise? The climax of the novel has Tom and Sam bringing down the evil vice principal at the school assembly when their band Balls Deep….

Well, you’ll have to read the book. Or see the film, which is due out in 2010.