Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes just might be one of my favorite reads of all time. Set during one week in 1973, it's the story of high school senior Karl Shoemaker’s last-ditch attempt to be normal. Achieving that goal is no easy feat, however, for Karl is a long time member of the “Madman Underground," a group of teens with a variety of troubling family issues that has marooned them in mandatory group therapy sessions. Karl’s father, the town’s former mayor, is dead from cancer, and his hippie mother is a binge partier who has filled their house with cats. The other kids in the group are struggling with incest, alcoholism, physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and just flat out family weirdness. What they have in common is being branded by teachers as screw-ups, then doomed to an endless array of therapists who don’t know what they're doing. The Madmen struggle along through chaos at home, varying degrees of teasing at school, and some true terror in their own minds. The week of normal that Karl embarks on ends up being a hugely significant period in all of their lives, culminating in the moment they embrace a communal friendship long denied, but stronger than any of them had anticipated. It’s also about a hell of a lot more than that and has some killer writing that should not be missed.
Barnes covers dozens of high school tropes, but turns them on their heads with ease. From the coach/lit teacher who insists that Huck Finn is not “a story about a couple of queers on a raft,” to the idiotic bullies, jocks, socials, farm boys, band geeks, drama queens, hoods, and on and on. Everyone you expect is here, but by definition the Madmen belong to themselves more than any clique, even though several walk a border between popular and weird. They can never separate themselves from the fact that once a week they are all together because something is wrong with them, and it can’t be fixed. Operation Be Fucking Normal is all Karl can think about, but high school is a narrative all its own, that can't be stopped no matter how hard you try. Karl juggles four jobs, keeps the house clean, buries the cats when the raccoons get them, attends AA meetings faithfully, and dreams of normalcy, but there is still the fact that the people he cares about most in the world -- and the ones who understand him better than anyone -- are all different kinds of not normal. Fortunately, Karl figures that out early on, and the story becomes more about survival and the benefits of being true to who you are, and who you want to be.
This is not a sweet or simple story, and at moments, the reality of what the Madmen suffer through can be quite daunting. But that is the point, as Barnes illustrates so perfectly in one passage: "While Huck had these problems, Tom Sawyer just wanted to play stupid games about being robbers and things -- that was something us Madmen talked about all the time, the way kids getting raped or beaten were sitting in class next to kids whose biggest concern was what to wear for homecoming.” Karl has problems, and so do his friends. Separately they're adrift, but together, even in the unlikeliest of circumstances, they save one another. In the end, there are a few adults as well who chip in when Karl needs them, and while no one in this story is perfect, a lot of them are decent and kind and good. And the Madmen prevail against mean classmates and foolish parents and really crappy circumstances. If that doesn’t make for a truly epic coming-of-age tale, I don’t know what does. Tales of the Madman Underground is one for the ages, pure and simple. A must read.
Cross posted from my Bookslut column - Tales was named a Printz Honor title for 2009.