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Review: Tales of the Madman Underground

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.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. I loved Tales from the Madman Underground. From the characters to the writing, it was spot on good.

    If you get a chance check out Edi’s recent Here’s to the Madmen post

  2. Also love love love Tales of a Madman Underground. I’m hoping for more YA from Mr. Barnes but I’m going to try his latest adult book after the Newbery/Printz season.

    Madman, while a lot to bit into at first, really transported me to another time, another life. It’s a long book that covers only six days in Kyle’s life and I was left wanting to read about the next day and the next day.

    I’m a little bummed that Going Bovine won the Printz. I’m a much bigger fan of The Monstrumologist and Madman than Bray’s book (which I really didn’t enjoy much and thought was just mediocre in terms of execution and writing).

  3. Doret, thanks for the link, I’ll check it out!

    DogEar, hey we have a match?! Yay!

  4. Hah hah, DogEar, that is why awards are so subjective– I thought Going Bovine was one of the BEST books I’d EVER read, EVER. But on the other hand, the year before I wasn’t all that impressed with Jellicoe Road, but adored the Honor Books. Some years ya get it, some years ya don’t.

  5. Your reviews always make me want to read the books you’re reviewing …

  6. rockinlibrarian, yes! Bovine was just painful for me, as was White Darkness. I didn’t get through either. But my coworker, whose opinion I respect greatly, picked up Madman Underground last week and couldn’t get into it at all. If I hadn’t already read it, I wouldn’t have picked it up on her review. I think it’s just best to say, there’s something for everyone but unlikely that everything will be for everyone.

  7. rockinlibrarian & dogear: I loved Going Bovine. Partly because when I got to the end, went to reread it, and so many things that happened in the rest of the book were told in the first few chapters. A bit like THE USUAL SUSPECTS and the bulletin board. And of course, being on the committee that gave the Printz to Jellicoe Road, I adore Jellicoe Road!

    Lara, thank you. I appreciate that.

    DogEar, I didn’t read White Darkness (and still haven’t) in part because I wanted my Printz reading not to be influenced by the previous years. Also, I deliberately read less literary stuff leading up to my Printz year because I know my reading would be heavy. Maybe this year, to balance the nonfiction I’ll be reading.

    I cannot imagine there ever being one book that eveyone likes.


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