Tales of the Madman Underground (An Historical Romance 1973) by John Barnes. Viking. 2009. Reviewed from ARC from a conference.
The Plot: Lightsburg, Ohio, 1973. Karl Shoemaker has a simple resolution for his senior year: don’t get the “ticket,” the slip of paper from school that sends him to group therapy during school hours. Instead, be normal for just this one year.
Normal? Is normal his mother, sometimes drunk, sometimes stoned, sometimes stealing his money, sometimes talking about her flying saucers and Nixon theories? Is normal his five jobs that earns him the money he hides in jars around his house to stop his mother from stealing? Is normal his dead father, whose legacy was several pages of “how to fix things” to keep their falling down house in some semblance of order? What about the cats who treat the entire house as a litter box? Then there’s Karl’s own drinking which he stopped doing last year and he is now the youngest person at AA meetings with, perhaps, the most boring story there. What is normal?
The Plot: I wasn’t so sure about Karl at first. Didn’t know what to make of him. Karl narrates the story, which takes place from Wednesday, September 5, 1973 to Monday, September 10, 1973. While the story takes place during only a handful of days, Karl also fills us in on his past. Karl is not so much an unreliable narrator as one who takes his time telling you things, and doesn’t do so in a linear fashion. The story and narrative all make sense, and ultimately all the pieces fit together to give you a picture of Karl, his friends, his family, his town.
I went in with very little knowledge of Karl; it’s a Printz Honor, but I remained unspoiled. The “madman underground” is the nickname given to themselves by the students in group therapy; some have lives and friendships outside the group, some do not. All have their own brand of horror story, sometimes because of something they did, or something someone did to them. Karl’s fellow madmen are in group therapy for “weird” behavior or for issues of disrespect, anger, violence; the friends know there is more to each of their stories, including abuse, alcoholism, incest. Because they know each other’s true stories, and because they all believe the hell they know is better than the hell they don’t, their stories aren’t fully known by adults. Even when they are known, the adults look the other way, ignore it, pretend it isn’t true. Take, for instance, Karl. His dead father, one-time mayor and recovering alcoholic, was well known and respected in town. His mother’s drinking and his home life isn’t exactly a secret. Yet all those “good buddies” of his dad do little to help mother or son. No wonder Karl is angry – angry enough that he has earned the nickname “Psycho.”
What Karl did to be called “Psycho” is shocking, softened only by it being something that happened in his past. When, in the present, people believe him capable of certain acts because he is “Psycho Shoemaker,” part of me also wonders. What is Karl really capable of? Tales of the Madman Underground gives us an answer: Karl is capable of taking care of himself and taking care of others.
Abuse, alcoholism, psycho. Sounds pretty heavy – but this book is also funny. Sometimes funny in a black humor type of way, sometimes funny in a laugh out loud way. Karl on his math teacher: “Mrs. Hertz wasn’t really a pushover. No math teacher can be because they can see your bullshit too easy. But she was nice, and she hated to say “you’re wrong,” and best of all, she was as heavy a smoker as my mother, so between classes she was always charging down to the teachers’ lounge to suck down those nasty skinny brown almost-cigars, and it usually made her a couple minutes late to class, so there was more socializing and less math in my life.”
Karl is trying to take steps to create a life for himself. One of those steps? He’s a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a bit refreshing to have a book where the teen is in AA, and the story is not about being in AA. It’s just a part of who Karl is.
Longtime readers know I tend to question why a book is set in the past, especially the past that just so happens to be when the author was a teen. Cynically I wonder, is it because they feel they don’t know about teens today? If that is the answer, their book should be for adults, not teens. Is it a sort of navel-gazing, “this was important to me so it’s important to everyone”? If that is the answer, well, it’s a bit self centered.
For Tales of the Madman Underground, the answer was simple. It is a book for teens; it is a book that had to be set in the past. These teens are broken and have put themselves back together, either by themselves or with the help of their friends. They are each other’s family. If this had been set in today’s world, readers would scoff, “someone would have called the police,” “that would never be tolerated,” “someone would have done something.” 1973 allows the reader to believe, “oh, it’s different today. Teens today don’t have to suffer in silence.” But teenagers reading this? Will know that what was true in 1973 is true today.