Making It As a Modern Male: YA Novels and the Teen Boy
Many social commentators have lamented the "lost" generation of American boys, growing up in a time in which girls have garnered a lot of attention in the public mind. Although teenage boys are considered a hard sell for fiction writers, guys probably stand in greater need of the vicarious experience offered in novels than do girls, since boys often find their life experience in riskier behaviors and since they are thought to be less comfortable with sharing personal events and feelings with each other.
Despite a resistant market, novelists are drawn to go where angels fear to tread. In this post and in others that follow, I will feature some remarkable young adult novels (roughly for ages 13-17) which show modern teenaged males coping with their own coming of age.
For anyone for whom, in the words of the main character Tom Henderson (alias “Chi-Mo,”) “life is (or has ever been) a “wince-a-thon”, Frank Portman's King Dork will bring it all back–and possibly make navigating high school a bit more meaningful-in real time or in retrospect.
Tom is a skinny, awkward sophomore with only one ally, Sam Hellerman, who becomes his friend in elementary school mainly because of that law of nature, alphabetical order. The main plot line turns on Tom and Sam’s dream of becoming rock stars and attracting hot girls, a quest which is frustrated by their obvious dorkiness, the outright physical and psychological bullying of their “normal” classmates, their generally useless parents and school, and, chiefly, their lack of instruments and the ability to play a note. Undaunted, Tom daily dreams up names and album titles for once and future bands, while Sam uses his considerable intellect to make things happen in real time.
The secondary plot line involves Tom’s search for the cause of his father’s death (suicide vs. murder), beginning with his dad's cryptic codes and code keys scribbled in those bibles of 1970's adolescent angst – Siddartha, A Separate Peace, and, of course, A Catcher in the Rye. Tom intuits that the key to his search lies in a encrypted note from an friend of his father who calls himself “tit.” The working out of this mystery and the uncovering of Sam’s machinations, along with Tom’s first sexual encounters with the illusory “Fiona” and her doppelganger Deanna Schumacher, round out the action in this up-to-the-moment bildungsroman.
Like that more notorious coming-of-age hero, Harry Potter, Tom is a sympathetic stranger in a strange land whose basic sweetness protects him from the sheer meanness of the “normals” and the depraved administration at Hillmont High. Tom and his trusty sidekick Sam manage to put together a band and get a gig at the Hillmont “Festival of Light” (a.k.a. Battle of the Bands). Wielding their hard-won guitars like wands, Tom and Sam manage to overcome the Death Eaters, (in the persons of bully Matt Lynch and the Vice-Principal Mr. Teone, the two-faced Voldemort of this piece) with Tom’s incantation of “We’re the Chi-Mos!”, the last and most transforming of his band names. (Read the whole thing to find out how!)
King Dork is a mystifying, moving, appalling, thought-provoking, sometimes convoluted, funny, and utterly absorbing novel for a reader at any stage of maturation. After all, as long as we live we’re still coming of age, and life remains a bit of a “wince-a-thon” for us all.