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May 10-16, 2006

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Frank Portman

Photograph by Elizabeth Seward
BMOC: Author Frank Portman, photographed in the quad of his former high school in the East Bay.

High School Confidential

Former punk rocker Frank Portman's pithy pillar of apathy shines in young adult novel 'King Dork'

By Gabe Meline

I can honestly say this with no hesitation: Even if I had never met Frank Portman, even if I hadn't played in his band, the Mr. T Experience, and even if we hadn't traveled around the country and to the other side of the world playing shows every night, stumbling together through countless adventures, I would still have devoured King Dork (Delacorte Press; $16.95), Portman's outstanding debut young adult novel, in one all-night, cover-to-cover sitting.

True, reading it reminded me of all the things I'd missed about being in a band with Portman, but that's beside the point. Simply put, King Dork is an undeniably great book, incisively capturing the high school experience through the eyes of one of modern literature's most engaging characters, as the reams of glowing reviews from Entertainment Weekly to USA Today are glad to point out. And when I crawled into bed at 5:30am after the book's end, my head swimming with the twists and turns and outright hilarity of it all, I thought to myself: Well, well, well. Dr. Frank finally did it.

Digging out a tour journal from 2001, I discovered this passage, written in Stockholm: "Frank and I woke up and went downstairs to get coffee. We talked about ideologies destroying culture, about revolution within traditional institutions and its role in homogenizing rather than furthering the cultural place of that institution. And we talked about how Frank will probably never write a book."

Despite his vast talent, Portman has never been much on self-confidence; he defines the trait as "almost always a sign of stupidity." His decidedly circumventive stage patter hesitantly refers to each upcoming song as "a song about a girl." Yet now he finally has a reason to feel self-assured, thanks to his across-the-board success with a brilliant novel in which low self-confidence at a traditional institution takes center stage--and especially since the existence of a book with his name as author baffles him more than anyone else.

"In the months of going around saying I was working on my novel but actually not having done anything," he explains to me over steak and Budweiser at the Park Avenue Grill in Oakland, "I did have a word file on my laptop titled 'Novel' that for a long time contained one sentence: 'There is no way I could ever write a whole book.'"

Serious negotiations with editors in New York didn't much help to stoke the fire, but once the nonexistent book was sold and his advance arrived from Random House, he dutifully got to work. "I was just flyin' blind," he recalls, with no vision yet of King Dork's intricate quilt of page-turning surprises. "I have heard writers say this before, and it always sounded like pretentious baloney, that they would look forward to typing their novel 'so they could find out what was gonna happen,' and I hate to say it, but that's kind of what it was like."

King Dork's unfolding plot follows Tom Henderson, a high school junior who discovers some notes in his deceased father's copy of The Catcher in the Rye--a book he damns as overrated--and embarks on a thrilling journey involving dead people, naked people, ESP, blood, guitars, the Bible, girls and rock 'n' roll. He and his quick-witted sidekick, Sam Hellerman, constantly change the name of their drummerless band while piecing together stray clues to his dad's mysterious death, the unpredictability of the female species and the lame ineptitude of the entire school faculty and student population.

It's quite a ride.

"People are gonna automatically assume that it's directly a fictional version of me," says Portman, insisting that the incidents in the book are made up. But he concedes that "the general attitude of feeling like the entire world is a set of interlocking conspiracies at your expense pretty much was my experience growing up." One of the chapters is titled "High School Is the Penalty for Transgressions Yet to Be Specified," and much of the action in the book takes place inside Tom Henderson's busy head. "You can't write a novel about alienation," Portman admits, "without having a feeling of alienation yourself."

With a keen eye for certain key aspects of high school life, Portman effectively captures the alienated nonresponse that characterizes Tom, who makes glib observations about other kids at school, but could care less about anything they do. In one of the book's many highlights, he examines the pointless and embarrassing activities surrounding Homecoming, including large banners that read, "Come See the Spirit Towel!" ("Even if I knew what the hell the Spirit Towel was," Tom narrates, "I don't think I'd tell you: I'm pretty sure we're all better off not knowing.") In a world of Carrie Whites and Napoleon Dynamites who strive to win the good graces of the popular kids, Tom Henderson is a refreshing pillar of total apathy.

"If you watch a TV show like Freaks and Geeks," Portman explains, "those characters--even the loser ones--are still way more normal than my experience of being a non-normal person was. I just wanted to get that across in a dramatic way, how weird normal people are." Though Tom and Sam eventually end up finding a drummer and playing the high school talent show, they don't win a standing ovation from the student body, and more importantly, they never wanted one to begin with. Portman emphasizes. "The real Napoleon Dynamite would be like, 'Fuck you guys, you all suck.'"

The educational system, rock 'n' roll and Portman's command of the English language have met before (notably in the 1987 Mr. T Experience song "The History of the Concept of the Soul," which distills an entire college thesis into a two-and-a-half minute punk rock song). In fact, the first time we met, in 1991, I was interviewing the Mr. T Experience outside the Gilman Street Project in Berkeley for my fanzine Boy, Does High School Ever Suck, and thus our first conversation was on the dreariness of high school life. Yet being allowed to fictionalize the full breadth of his understanding in book form was not an opportunity without pressure, he says.

"I wanted it to be good. I didn't want to be half-assed about it," he says, recalling rewrite after meticulous rewrite. "Let's face it, in rock 'n' roll, you let a lot of things slide, and it's OK. But you only have one chance to have a first novel. If you blow it, then you've really blown it. You don't say 'Oh, whatever, that's just a B-side.'"

Portman applies other techniques learned from writing rock songs. "There are certain things that tie a song together, where you'll have something in the first verse that'll be echoed in the third verse, but after you've heard the bridge, it has a slightly different impact the third time around," he explains. "I tried to do that myself; everything has at least one echo somewhere else in a flipped-over, turned inside-out sort of way. It's literal, it's structural, it's maybe even symbolic, and the tighter you make it, the cooler it is. I don't have a fancy literary way of conceiving it, 'cause I just think of it in terms of coolness."

Though King Dork is technically a young adult novel, its widespread acclaim and universal appeal could shake up a few notions about who reads teen novels. "I think that if you ever went to high school," says Portman, "and ever had a feeling that everyone was out to get you--and I think most people fall into that category to some degree--I think you'll probably get something out of it. Plus, you know, I think there's just enough jokes."

King Dork is in its second printing, and there's already talk brewing in Hollywood about film rights, but Portman's self-confidence is nonetheless simmering on low heat. As we leave the restaurant, he confides that he's not sure he can live up to the floodlight of attention for King Dork with his next book, which he has already started writing.

"It's about a girl," he says, hesitantly.

"I mean, I know a lot about girls, but we'll see."

Frank Portman, aka Dr. Frank, appears Friday, May 12, at Copperfield's Books. 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 7pm. Free. 707.762.0563.

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