Dr. Frank Approximately : The Works of Frank Portman

Originally written for a class on Young Adult Literature in my library science school at Rutgers.

HOLDEN / ELVIS, TOM, FRANK, & ANDROMEDA

If we were to compare YA lit to rock & roll, The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield would arguably be its Elvis Presley: the charismatic young rebel whose restless, hormonal angst resonated so profoundly with American postwar teens that any history of the genre would absolutely have to include him at some early and pivotal point.

Tom Henderson, the narrator of Frank Portman’s 2006 novel King Dork and its 2014 sequel King Dork Approximately, thinks The Catcher in the Rye sucks. Plus, he’s ever eager to tell you why he thinks everyone who loves that overrated book is a dumb hypocrite. He’s a lot like a late-seventies punk rocker. He’s a sardonic & antisocial misfit, though not violently so; he’d far more likely be the victim of a senseless beating than the instigator. Because, you see, he’s also like a sensitive and cerebral kind of late-seventies punk rocker, the kind who prefers wryly subversive songs of alienation & romantic dysfunction over righteous, riotous protest anthems. 

In fact, Tom’s not just a punk rocker for the purposes of our YA / rock and roll analogy. He actually sort of is one, even though his story starts in 1999 during his sophomore year of high school. Like so many sardonic & antisocial misfits, his weapon of choice in the rebellion against the conjoined-twin evils of conformity and cruelty is the power of rock and roll. He talks about it to an obsessive degree, and plays in a punk-spirited rock band with his best friend, Sam Hellerman– that is, when he’s not obsessively thinking about girls, or obsessively trying to solve the mystery of his dad’s suspicious death. 

In our extended YA / rock and roll analogy, Tom Henderson may not have a match quite as congruent as Holden / Elvis.  (Granted, the histories of these two artforms, despite being geared toward the same age group, have rarely been congruent, each one ebbing and flowing to its own rhythms. So it’s hard to find many congruent pairings at all beyond Holden / Elvis. For example, the rock and roll equivalent of the Harry Potter series, which brought fanatic mania and blockbuster fantasy to YA lit at the turn of the 21st century, would probably be the so-called “British Invasion” that began with The Beatles in the ‘60s and ended with Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s.) You might say Tom is a bit like another Elvis (Costello), a bit like Joey Ramone, a bit like Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks, and a bit like Dan Treacy of The Television Personalities

If you’re familiar with any of those names, you might know that numerous histories of rock and roll have been written with little or no mention of them. But any such history that does include the likes of them is going to be way more interesting and kick way more ass than those that don’t. 

The same could be said about YA lit and Tom “King Dork” Henderson. For that matter, the same could be said of YA lit and Frank Portman himself, who also created a timelessly archetypal yet fascinatingly unique teenage character in the eponymous protagonist of 2009’s Andromeda Klein. (Andromeda Klein, however, has no rock and roll counterpart, though not because she’s unworthy of one. It’s more like rock and roll isn’t worthy of her. Like Tom, Andromeda is a precocious and introspective outcast obsessed with investigating the life and untimely death of a departed love one– in this case, her dear friend Daisy who died of leukemia. But Andromeda’s pet preoccupation is occultism, not rock and roll. She copes with the chaotic iniquities of the universe by casting spells and reading Tarot cards, she idolizes dead magicians like they’re rock stars, and she can’t stand any music that isn’t by 14th-century ars nova composer Guillame de Machaut.) 

And of course, if we wanted to find the perfect rock and roll counterpart to YA author Frank Portman, it would have to be none other than Frank “Dr. Frank” Portman, from a little band called The Mr. T Experience.

THE DR. FRANK EXPERIENCE

I think writing songs actually prepares you for the role of novelist. I basically spent 25 years writing rock and roll songs from a teenage perspective. Fashioning that voice which, almost by definition, is always going to be from a first-person point of view – ‘I love this girl, who doesn’t love me back,’ is really good practice for writing a YA novel.” 

– Frank Portman, in an interview with Publishers Weekly, November 25, 2014

Dr. Frank became one of my favorite YA writers roughly a decade before he was officially a YA author. This was back when he was still just the frontman of a band that played in the extremely YA subgenre of rock and roll music known as pop punk: the one with all the suburban rebellion and romantic frustration set to fuzzy guitars, propulsive rhythms, and aggressively catchy melodies. It was 1996, the year I turned 15. I was a high school sophomore, and then a junior (that is, the same age as Tom Henderson, and then Andromeda Klein).

I had recently begun playing in a pop punk band of my own, inspired by bands like Green Day, Rancid,  and the Ramones. After one of our rehearsals, our singer/bassist Esteban introduced me to a band called The Mr. T Experience by popping in a CD called Love is Dead.  After just a few songs, I was jumping around the room with pogo-crazy glee over how much I now loved this band. Not only was their music every bit as invigorating as all the other pop punk bands I’d loved before, but the lyrics, written by some dude named “Dr. Frank,” were witty and wordy and resonant in ways I’d never heard before. The songs enthusiastically embraced well-worn tropes of teenage kicks and adolescent lust while simultaneously mocking & subverting them with smirky snark and nerdy precision that made it all sound refreshingly novel. They aptly described much of the confusion and frustration I’d encountered in my limited experience with romantic relationships, they gave me a taste of some of the confusion and frustration I’d experience in the future, and sometimes they took the very idea of romantic relationships to absurdly comic extremes.    

Boy meets girl, girl teases boy; boy looks for something to destroy
He’s into her, she’s onto him, and that’s the way it’s always been

– “I’m Like Yeah, But She’s All No,” track 14 on Love is Dead

Not long after hearing Love is Dead, I was compelled to procure as many Dr. Frank-written songs as I could get. Unfortunately, The Mr. T Experience (or MTX, as fans like me call them) were nowhere near as popular as Green Day, and this was well before the internet could get you whatever music you wanted to hear into your ears within seconds. So that meant buying maybe one MTX album in the mall’s big-chain record store, then finding a couple albums a month later at the head shop / indie record dealer four towns away, then having to mail-order a few more albums directly from the band’s label that would arrive in 6-8 weeks. To complete my collection, I’d even have to tape-record copies of sold-out, out-of-print, or otherwise unavailable MTX records that Esteban was lucky enough to grab.  

That’s the kind of power Dr. Frank’s work can have– at least on an angsty, sensitive, dorky adolescent soul like mine. And as I went deeper into the works of Dr. Frank, I was guided with great intrigue toward the works of those who inspired him. The MTX put pop punk hooks into a Dorothy Parker poem, and she subsequently became my new favorite poet. They recorded “The History of the Concept of the Soul,” a 78-second distillation of Dr. Frank’s college thesis, and it made me think it might be cool to learn more about ancient Greek philosophy.

As I became an older young adult, I outgrew a lot of the pop punk musicians I once loved, but never Dr. Frank and the MTX. And in 2006, when I heard that Dr. Frank just published a YA novel called King Dork, I freaked with joy. Then I bought the book as soon as I could. Then I read it as quickly as I could. Then I officially had a new favorite YA author.  

KING DORK RULES

I certainly wasn’t the only reader charmed by King Dork. Reviewers universally agreed it was pretty damn funny. Publishers Weekly (2006) cited Portman’s “biting humor.” Kirkus (2006) called it “a biting and witty high school satire.” In School Library Journal, Doyle (2006) said it was “hilarious” and “sparkling with wit.” For Booklist Online, Dobrez (2006) wrote that it’s “a humorous, scathing indictment of the current public education system.” Opinions were more mixed about the story; Doyle and Kirkus both praised the novel’s open-ended yet satisfying conclusion, while Dobrez felt its shaggy mystery plot was “weakly executed,” and PW felt it could get “a little tedious at times.” Still, the general consensus was that the narrator’s intelligence and humor overshadowed the novel’s flaws. “Tom’s voice carries the story,” Dobrez concluded, and Doyle declared, “Tom is so engaging that readers won’t mind” his leisurely-paced, highly-opinionated digressions.

In my professional opinion, you’ll probably get a good idea of how much you’ll enjoy King Dork from reading Tom’s intro:

“It’s actually kind of a complicated story, involving at least half a dozen mysteries, plus dead people, naked people, fake people, teen sex, weird sex, drugs, ESP, Satanism, books, blood, Bubblegum, guitars, monks, faith, love, withcraft, the Bible, girls, a war, a secret code, a head injury, the Crusades, some crimes, mispronunciation skills, a mystery woman, a devil-head, a blow job, and rock and roll. It pretty much destroyed the world as I had known it up to that point. And I’m not even exaggerating all that much. I swear to God.”  (Portman 2006, p. 1)

If this book had been around when I was Tom Henderson’s age, I would’ve known immediately from that first page that I would cherish this book, carry it everywhere, and mark all my favorite passages just like some ‘50s kid with a beat-up dog-eared paperback of Catcher in the Rye. And if high-school-sophomore me could’ve read King Dork, I’m sure I would find myself delightfully descending through all the rabbit holes Dr. Frank had dug for me, whether they led to the unstoppable power pop of Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard, or the Catholic malaise of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Or, the half-comforting / half-unsettling realization that the universe is an endless puzzle which can be fun to try and piece together, as long as you can accept that you’ll never truly solve much of it.    

After all, that’s practically what happened when I read King Dork at age 25, and to a slightly lesser extent when I read it again this year at nearly 40. And I’m not even exaggerating all that much.

KING DORK CONTINUES

Despite receiving all that critical acclaim, the cult of King Dork hasn’t grown quite as much as I thought / hoped it would have by now. And Dr. Frank remains, kind of like MTX vis-a-vis Green Day,  considerably less of a household name than more accessible chroniclers of YA outsiderhood, such as, say, John “Paper Towns” Green. There was supposed to be a King Dork movie produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, and that would have been awesome, but there hasn’t seemed to be any new developments on that project since 2014.  

At least Dr. Frank got to publish a sequel, King Dork Approximately, that same year. This time around, Tom’s quest doesn’t involve mysteries related to his dead father so much as it involves how he got his first real girlfriend– and, naturally, his continuing rock and roll struggle versus “the shark tank of Normalcy.”

“Normalism is nothing any sane person would volunteer for. It is rotten, corrupt, terrifying, and thoroughly despicable, organized by psychotics, led by fiends, staffed by sadistic, subhuman monsters, and supported by dim-witted enablers… When you say, ‘I want to fit in,’ you are essentially volunteering yourself as a victim, and when the thing you want to fit in with is ‘society’– well, as ‘society’ is just another word for the government, you’re basically begging the government to control you and use you as it wishes for its nefarious purposes…” (Portman 2014, p. 108)  

Reviews for KDA were generally positive, and fairly similar, if not always as enthusiastic, compared to the original’s. For Booklist Online, Smith (2014) noted that “though lacking the mystery of King Dork, this novel’s subtle plot is carried by a voice sharp with humor, sarcasm, and intelligence,” adding that “Because the novel is packed with music, book, and movie references, readers’ cultural literacy will get a definite boost.” Publishers Weekly (2014) concluded: “This book doesn’t have the mysteries that kept the pages turning in the original, but Tom’s irreverent voice and sharply observed, deeply funny insights about public education and the teen social order carry the story.” In School Library Journal, Dar (2014) called it “side-splitting” and concluded: “Quibbles aside, Tom is a winsome character who rings true and whose escapades will keep readers engaged.” Of the major reviewers, only Kirkus (2014) seemed far less enamored by Tom Henderson’s return, saying “This plotless, grandiloquent slice of life will appeal to readers working their way up to Ayn Rand and Tom Robbins,” all of which, I’m pretty sure, was meant to be insulting.

In my professional opinion, the most accurate review of KDA came from Pensky (2014), writing for the AV Club. Pensky peppers his grade-A take with words of praise like “great,” “hilarious,” and “resonant,” and sums up by saying, “This is a terrific, fun, terrifically fun novel, and the King Dork series is one of the best Young Adult creations.”

As a bonus, Dr. Frank got the band back together after years of hiatus to record MTX’s King Dork Approximately: The Album in 2016. Though Dr. Frank recorded a few solo versions of “Tom Henderson” songs for the original King Dork’s audiobook, the MTX album gave readers a new opportunity to appreciate his skills as a tunesmith, and to hear how good Tom’s band might sound if they were actually competent musicians.

THE UNIVERSE KNOWS WHO YOU ARE AND SOMETIMES WANTS TO SHOW YOU THINGS

“Magic could be hit or miss. Sometimes it didn’t seem to work at all; other times, things certainly happened, but they weren’t the particular things you were going for. Still other times, as now, it was hard to say what happened.”  (Portman 2009, p. 93)

In addition to my pop punk escapades as a young adult, that’s also when I began my dabblings in occultism. I was introduced to it by another dear friend of mine who happened to be a practicing witch. I didn’t necessarily buy everything that magick attempted to sell me, but to this day I’ve generally maintained a casual curiosity in the subject. I’ve even been known to use some rituals & techniques I’ve learned as ways to reframe my perspective and impose my will on reality. I swear to all the gods that I have never performed any such rituals with malicious intent, nor attempted anything resembling “black” or “blood” magic. I don’t believe that Tarot cards literally use supernatural forces to predict the future, but I do think they can combine the archetypes of mythology and psychology to help us consider life’s big questions in a different light.

Andromeda Klein, however, takes occultism incredibly seriously. As a reader of her eponymous novel (released between the two King Dorks), you can tell by the painstaking detail that Portman employs in the third-person narration describing her magickal pursuits. It’s hard to say how seriously Portman himself takes occultism, but he’s clearly done his research, and he never seems judgmental about it. Through his eyes, occultism just seems like another way for confused, alienated, and anachronistic teenage souls to try and make sense of the universe if they don’t care much for rock and roll.

Reviews of Andromeda Klein were also largely favorable, albeit with some reservations. “Portman’s depiction of Andromeda’s struggles in her claustrophobic world is skilled and affectionate,” claims Publishers Weekly (2009); “despite her strangeness, readers will identify with her feelings of isolation.” For School Library Journal, Flood (2009) echoes Andromeda’s potential resonance in spite of her idiosyncrasies, saying that older teens will “identify with Andromeda’s parental difficulties and daily struggles.” In a starred review for Booklist Online, Kraus (2009) calls the book a “must-read,” citing Portman’s “nonjudgmental and lots of fun” handling of the occult themes, before concluding: “With impish prose and ridiculously researched detail, Portman fully fleshes a one-of-a-kind character whose idea of the perfect pick-up line is Want to see my Necronomicon?Kirkus (2009) once again offers a dissenting opinion; though they grant that Andromeda is a compelling, unique, and likeable character, they describe the book as “disappointing,” “low-action,” “difficult to follow,” “meandering,” and “an unreadable morass” for readers uninitiated to the occult. 

Even with my 20-plus years of casual interest in the occult, I admit that Andromeda Klein could at times “make for a slow, intricate and arcane journey,” as PW (2009) writes. But I also agree wholeheartedly with their conclusion that “those up for the challenge will find plenty of food for thought.” My advice to less occult-inclined readers who are up for said challenge: plow through the thornier, magick-dense passages till you get back to the more accessible stuff, allow yourself to succumb to the book’s enchanting ouijanesse, fall in love with Andromeda, and marvel at the quintessentially Portman-esque fashion in which the story resolves– in a satisfying blend of synchronicity and open-ended intrigue that might just make you believe that the world is a magic(k)al place after all. 

A LITTLE BANNED IS KIND OF COOL  

“I expected King Dork to be a little banned. I don’t want it to be that banned, but a little banned is kind of cool. The kind of banning where it’s on the table that says “Banned Books.” That’s like, you stand there and look at the pile thinking, “These aren’t all that bad, actually.” They get their own table, so I’m onto the table. I imagine there’s a downside which I haven’t experienced. I don’t want to get people mailing me dead animals and stuff like that.” – Frank Portman, interview with Gothamist, September 18, 2009

With all the sex and drugs and witchcraft and vulgarity and anti-establishment attitude, the works of Frank Portman might not make the most welcome additions to certain school libraries or curricula. Though if your library’s community is even remotely cool, you could probably get away with doing some Portman-based programming that involves music-making, cultural criticism, or Tarot readings. In his interview with Parker (2009), Dr. Frank notes that a Portland school canceled his scheduled visit due to parental concerns over Andromeda’s occult elements. To those parents, as well as to any parents who might object to such events: I just want to assure you that occultism is a perfectly fine pastime for inquisitive & spiritual young adults to pursue, and is not an automatic gateway to demon worship and human sacrifice any more than rock and roll is an automatic gateway to, say, cocaine abuse and hotel-trashing. 

That said, I must concede that there are a few other elements of Portman’s work that some might find legitimately problematic. For instance, Tom Henderson often throws around words like “retarded” and “gay” in his narration, when he means to say something is “dumb” or “lame.” As someone who came of age around the same time as Tom, I can attest that this is indeed how a lot of the teens from our era spoke when they wanted to sound edgy and irreverent. And indeed, Tom ultimately and explicitly expresses plenty of sympathy for misfits of all kinds, including the homosexual and developmentally different. Of course, it doesn’t change the fact that his choice of words can sometimes come across as phobic and insensitive to our modern sensibilities.

Tom’s attitude about women is also frequently ignorant enough to cross the line into sexism, because despite his intelligence and sensitivity, he can still be a boneheaded, oblivious teen just like the rest of us were. By his second book, he and Sam even resort to using manipulative “pick-up artist” techniques to try and make it with girls. Tom does eventually see the error of such ways, but it makes for some cringey reading during the passages where he doesn’t– especially considering how Portman, as is his authorial style, doesn’t indicate any overt judgments about his characters’ behavior. Similarly, Andromeda Klein makes frequent reference to the title character’s boyfriend, whose age is never specified, but is clearly implied to be way too old to be dating a high schooler. While Dr. Frank doesn’t necessarily condone such behavior, his judgment-free silence as the author may require some serious conversations between teenage readers and the responsible adults in their lives. 

DR. FRANK IS FOR YOU

John “Paper Towns” Green himself, before he achieved Green Day-sized fame in the YA lit world, had this to say about King Dork:

“This book is for you if you’re in a band or wish you were, if you loved or hated The Catcher in the Rye, if you like girls or are one, if you’ve ever spoken Francais or Franglais, or if your high school has or had a dumb mascot. Basically, if you are a human being with even a vague grasp of the English language, King Dork will rock your world.” – blurb from the King Dork book jacket

I utterly love & fervently embrace this opinion of King Dork, and so I’d like to end things here by presenting the following John Green-inspired statement regarding the work of Dr. Frank Portman:

Dr. Frank is for those of us who crave deeply meaningful relationships of all kinds with all kinds of people, but struggle to figure out how, so we often forge deeply meaningful relationships with things like 1970’s rock albums and dead wizards. Dr. Frank is for those of us who are endlessly puzzled by our cruel, chaotic universe, and so we seek to solve the universe accordingly, knowing deep deep down we’ll keep failing spectacularly. Dr. Frank is for those of us constantly coming to terms with the fact that our quixotic attempts to decipher life’s mysteries will probably lead us into sheer madness, if we’re not careful. Dr. Frank is for all of us. But if, for some reason, Dr. Frank is not actually for you– if Catcher in the Rye is more your thing– well, rock and roll; Tom Henderson is basically Holden Caulfield anyway.

Sources
Corbett, S. (2014, November 25). Q & A with Frank Portman. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens -authors/article/64865-q-a-with-frank-portman.html

Dar, M. (2014, September 1). King Dork Approximately. School Library Journal. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.slj.com/?reviewDetail=king-dork-approximately

Dobrez, C. (2006, May 15). King Dork. Booklist Online. Retrieved December 10, 2020 from https://www.booklistonline.com/King-Dork-Frank-Portman/pid=1650449

Doyle, M. (2006, April 1). King Dork review. School Library Journal.

Flood, S. (2009, December 1). Andromeda Klein review. School Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews. (2006, March 15). KING DORK. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/frank-portman/king-dork/

Kirkus Reviews. (2009, August 15). ANDROMEDA KLEIN. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/frank-portman/andromeda-klein/

Kirkus Reviews. (2014, August 15). KING DORK APPROXIMATELY. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/frank-portman/king-dork-approximately/

Kraus, Daniel. (2009, August 1). Andromeda Klein. Booklist Online. Retrieved December 10, 2020 from https://www.booklistonline.com/Andromeda-Klein-Frank-Portman/pid=3603342

Mr. T Experience. (1996). Love is Dead. Berkeley, CA : Lookout! Records. 

Parker, B. (2009, September 18). Frank Portman, King Dork. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://gothamist.com/arts-entertainment/frank-portman-king-dork

Pensky, N. (2014, December 15). Frank Portman’s YA sequel King Dork Approximately returns to its loner hero. The AV Club. Retrieved December 11, 2020, from https://aux.avclub.com/frank-portman-s-ya-sequel-king-dork-approximately-retur-  1798182376

Portman, F. (2006). King Dork. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Portman, F. (2009). Andromeda Klein. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Portman, F. (2014). King Dork Approximately. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Publishers Weekly. (2006, March 13). King Dork. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.publishersweekly.com/9780385732918

Publishers Weekly. (2009, July 27). Andromeda Klein. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.publishersweekly.com/9780385735254

Publishers Weekly. (2014, October 6). King Dork Approximately. Retrieved December 10, 2020, https://www.publishersweekly.com/9780385736183

Smith, J. (2014, September 1). King Dork Approximately. Booklist Online. Retrieved December 10, 2020 from https://www.booklistonline.com/King-Dork-Approximately-Frank-Portman/pid =6824070


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