Saturday, August 28, 2010
Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes
Tales of the Madman Underground has been reviewed on Guys Lit Wire twice. The first review (over a year ago) was rather lukewarm about the book, clearly not a big fan. The second review, from February, was glowing. I just read the book myself and think I need to break the tie. And by doing this I hope I get as many people as possible to read Tales of the Madman Underground, because it is one of the best written and boldest young adult books I’ve read. How good is it? It is Robert-Cormier-Good. That is the name that kept zipping through my brain as I made my way through all of the adventures of the madman underground. It is outstanding. Read it.
I was born in 1960, but I consider myself a kid of the seventies because those are the years of my youth that I remember. This story takes place in 1973; in fact, all 532 pages take place over just six days in 1973. John Barnes nails the seventies. Imagine for a moment how different life was in 1973. Not just in the obvious ways, with technology or politics, but in how people treated each other, or something more mundane, like how we saw smoking or picking up dog poop. Reading this story immersed me right back into those years as well as the realities of being a teenage boy. The book rings with such an authentic voice, that I was sure Barnes was also a teenager in the seventies. I looked him up, and sure enough, in 1973 he was 16.
Karl Shoemaker is starting his senior year in high school in Lightsburg, his small Ohio town. How small is it? No-movie-theater-small. In many ways the town is dying, both literally and spiritually. There seems to be more empty, boarded-up stores than open stores. And the people of Lightsburg – like so many towns big and small all across our nation – are hurting. They are struggling with alcohol and relationships and anger and drugs and the aimless drift of life. And some of them are just awful people and abusive parents. Karl’s dad died a few years before and his mom is a wreck. She loves him, but she is an endless partier and an alcoholic, and so was Karl as well as his dad, but Karl saw his ugly future in a bottle of booze and quit and goes to AA. I know this sounds depressing, but in fact, the book glows with wisdom and in a way I see Karl as a teenage philosopher.
Karl’s school requires the kids who are in “screwed-up families” to attend therapy sessions. That small group of kids has named themselves the Madman Underground, and they are to each other what their families should be for each of them. But Karl wants out of Lightsburg and out of the the group; not because he wants to split on his closest friends – he would never want that – but because, as he says in the opening pages, he just wants to be “fucking normal." But as Marti, a new girl in the Underground says to him, "Here's a whole line of cars full of kids; how many are of them are normal? Most of them, right, by definition? And if you threw a rock down the line what would be your chance of hitting a happy person?"
The writing is smart and sharp and funny. While the story is tragic – and even borders a few times on being disturbing -- the writing can be hysterical. Reading about six days in someone’s life for 500-plus pages may seem like an arduous task, but it’s not at all when the writing flows like a wicked sheet of silk.
Tales of the Madman Underground has something else in common with some of Robert Cormier’s books. It will never be assigned in school. Yes, I’m sure there are bold teachers who assign The Chocolate War and We All Fall Down. But The Chocolate War is one of the most censored and challenged books in the country. (It's number three on the ALA most banned books of 2000-2009, and number 10 for 2009 -- and that’s 35 years after it was published in 1974.) The “Madman Underground” will never be assigned in school because it is chock-full of just about everything that frightens parents and scares teachers and terrifies school boards and gets books banned: sex, drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, and a shitload of “bad language.” So here is another reason to read this book. In a few days it will be September. The last week of September is “banned books week,” sponsored by the American Library Association. To my knowledge “Madman” isn’t a banned book yet (just give it time), but this would be a perfect book to read in the month we honor the freedom to read. (Here is a link to the ALA Banned Books Week info.)
While the book is a coming-of-age story it is really about survival and perseverance and friendship and caring for one another. Karl and his buddies in the Madman Underground are truly struggling to survive. And while this story takes place in 1973, and life really was so different back then, we know reading this book that in fact, most of life has stayed the same. There are Karls all around us today. If they are lucky, really lucky, they have their own madman underground.