The first line of Dr. Frank's first novel should've been "This is a book about a girl." No getting around it. We had high hopes for King Dork, the beloved East Bay pop-punk icon's first foray into the literary jungle. But the ebullient Mr. T. Experience frontman famous for introducing most of his tunes onstage by announcing "This is a song about a girl" had a chance to drop a grabby opener on par with "Call me Ishmael" or "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." And he blew it.
Too bad. Save it for the sequel, I guess, which will evidently be entitled King Dork Approximately.
The author in question who sensibly used his real name, Frank Portman, on his novel's cover, perhaps surmising that people might hesitate to buy a book written by a dude named "Dr. Frank" is psyched about his new literary career, you see. Not that he's abandoning The Rock entirely. Though MTX has pounded through two decades of fantastic power-punk (grab 1996's Love Is Dead) and its founder/songwriter/guiding light is now 41 years old, he's not leaping to the publishing world as an exit strategy. "No," Dr. Frank assures us. "But I do see it as my 'Get Out of Debtors' Prison strategy.' I won't say it's easy money, but it's possible money."
King Dork came about at the behest of a diehard MTX fan "Sometimes by sheer accident they end up in positions of power and influence," Frank explains who just happened to be a literary agent and thought Portman's deft, relentlessly witty three-minute pop songs would translate perfectly into a young-adult novel. It took a couple years to convince Frank of this, and a couple more for Frank to write the damn thing ("I won't say 'wild ride,' because it mostly involved sitting in one place"). He accomplished the feat primarily at Cato's Ale House in Oakland's Piedmont enclave, a joint chosen for its free wi-fi and full bar. "My drinking problem, you could call it a literary affectation," Portman notes.
Actually, we're sitting in Cato's now, chowing down on Frank's usual cheeseburger, potato wedges and discussing how King Dork, first line aside, came out so splendid. The book is great. It's certainly a Write What You Know Affair, a first-person account of one bizarre year in the life of its titular high-school nerd, as he grapples with wanton unpopularity, family issues, his love for '70s punk, and the daunting specter of the opposite sex. Even its more familiar elements (sadistic gym teachers, etc.) are warmly evoked.
Portman, in other words, can riff on the philosophical implications of the cult surrounding The Catcher in the Rye without getting all wonky and pretentious. His characters act like actual teenagers, down to their most entertaining activity: inventing fake bands, song titles, album covers, and live-show concepts, painstakingly documented in spiral notebooks. King Dork and his best friend spend much of the book crafting the trajectories of imaginary outfits like Beat Noir-ay, Baby Batter, Plasma Nukes, and Tennis with Guitars. (This exactly mirrors Dr. Frank's own adolescence, spent inventing bands like the Visine Eye, "an intellectual Deep Purple" psyche-blues outfit featuring five guitarists.)
There's a healthy amount of teenager still preserved within Dr. Frank, which helps tremendously when writing books for and about teenagers, a task more difficult than snooty academic types give you credit for. "When you tell people that you've written a young-adult novel," Portman notes, "they'll always just say, 'Oh, how sweet! Are you gonna write a real one sometime?'" When he mailed copies out to various cultural big-shots in hopes of the all-important book jacket quote Ira Robbins declares King Dork's protagonist "a winning post-punk Hardy Boy equal" Frank was dismayed at the reaction of celebrated pop culture scribe Chuck Klosterman. "His reaction was, 'Why would I read this? It's a teen novel!'" Portman recalls. "I was like, 'You're a guy who's based his entire career on writing about teenage music. You disdain to read a book about a teenager, but you'll listen to Mötley Crüe?"
Actually, snaring teenage readers is probably harder than charming the allegedly mature literati. "I want somebody like me to like it, and I want somebody who's fourteen to like it," Dr. Frank says. "But you can always tell when someone's dumbing it down or talking down to the audience, and it's always a bad idea, and a lot of children's literature is that way, and those are the kind of people that kids, generally, don't like." So King Dork avoids overly hip name-dropping or sub-intellectual pandering: The good doctor tells it like it is. Consider an early chapter subhead: "High school is the penalty for transgressions yet to be specified." It's not always pretty, but it's always pretty accurate.
So there's King Dork Approximately on the horizon, plus Frank's second novel, likely under production at Cato's as you read this. The next MTX album, he says, is "past the fantasizing stage" but not much further, although Portman has written a few tunes from the prospective of King Dork's hero. One bears the title "I Wanna Ramone You."
Kinda funny, kinda dorky, kinda poignant. Perfect.