Supposedly nobody outside the therapy group knew there was a group. Of course we all knew that wasn’t true. High school was like the little clear plastic tunnels that Paul’s hamsters lived in: you could run a long way but never get out, and always, everyone could see you.
Tales of the Madman Underground opens on the first day of senior year, and Karl Shoemaker has one goal: be normal.
Since eighth grade, he’s been in the school’s therapy group, the self-appointed Madman Underground. Karl is tired of being called a “psycho,” though. He hopes if he can act like an ordinary kid until Halloween, he’ll avoid getting put in therapy altogether.
But acting ordinary is hard when your life is so chaotic.
At seventeen, Karl is already a regular at AA meetings. His dad died several years ago, and his mom has become a hippie burn-out who brings home loser guys and steals Karl’s money to buy pot and party.
Besides Karl, the rest of the Madmen (and Madwomen) have parents who are abusive, crazy themselves, or just have more exciting things to do than raise kids. Tales of the Madman Underground is about kids who have to grow up fast. Their underground stretches beyond the therapy sessions; it’s the support network they’ve stitched together to look after one another: places to crash when they get locked out of their houses, the search party that forms when one of their number runs away.
With all the craziness in his life, Karl’s plan to be normal is pretty much doomed from the start, but really the plot hardly matters in a book like this. Tales of the Madman Underground takes 500-plus pages to wander through six days. It’s stuffed with flashbacks of the Madmen’s past misadventures and Karl’s half-philosophical/ half-obscene observations about everything and everybody in his little Ohio town.
Sometimes wandering seems like lost, though, and stuffed just feels bloated. Told from Karl’s first-person POV, the book includes everything he does and every conversation he has through those six days, no matter how mundane. I’m not sure what I learned from the complete rundown of his morning routine--timed to the minute--or the two pages describing him replacing an old toilet. After awhile, I started wondering if Karl--or maybe John Barnes--has undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder.
But even if the book swells with too many details, a lot of the details are sharp and well-observed. Karl’s addict mom bounces between childish manipulation, whining self-pity, and half-hearted stabs at being a real parent. When Karl deals with her, it’s with a mix of anger at how she acts and a son’s eternal affection. His teachers and the parade of fresh-from-college therapists are generally well-meaning but mostly useless.
The Madmen themselves are the best-drawn characters. As his plan to be normal falls apart, Karl begins to see what they really are: friends-by-necessity who’ve learned to trust one another, to comfort one another, and who always have time for one more wild tale.
(Cross-posted on my blog.)