Dr. Frank Approximately : The Works of Frank Portman

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


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.

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