Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes
I was right when I said that I thought this book would be my kind of book. This coming-of-age story set during the first six days of the school year in 1973 in a blue-collar town in Ohio had everything I like in a YA novel: angst-ridden teens who are actually trying to better their lives; superb writing which is humorous and poignant in turns; historically accurate; characters who are multifaceted-- not just one-dimensional; and dialogue which seems real and well-timed.
Karl Shoemaker wants his senior year to be 'normal' rather than one dominated by the drama associated with the forced therapy group he has been a part of since 4th grade. As he tries to distance himself from the group he realizes that he can't and doesn't want to distance himself from the friends he has made in the group, The Madman Underground. This rag-tag group of kids who all have pretty hefty problems are truly his support network. Adults, like his hippie, cat-loving, alcoholic mother, may let him down but the members of the Madman Underground never do.
The subtitle of this book is: A Historical Romance, 1973. I was in high school in 1973 so I was on the lookout for authentic, accurate cultural references and the book was full of them. Here are a few that I found charming/funny: Karl sprayed his pits (he put on deodorant); the hoods came in the bathroom to smoke (the drug-users, hard-core kids--most schools at that time period had a smoking area but often the hoods would come inside and smoke in the bathroom when the weather was bad outside); Marti drove a Ford LTD (I think half of my friends' parents had LTDs when I was in high school); she was such a J.D. (juvenile delinquent); platform wedges (shoes that gals wore that made them about five inches taller); references to Kent State and Vietnam (The National Guard killed four students on the campus of Kent State who were protesting the Vietnam War.) Barnes did a great job placing the plot accurately in the early 1970s.
Common Sense Media, an organization which reviews books and films and gives them an age-rating for appropriateness (rather than ban or censor them), grades this book as 16+. I would agree that this is a book for a mature, older teenager. There is quite a bit of profanity and talk of sexual issues. But I think that readers of Marcus Zusak (I Am the Messenger); John Green (Looking for Alaska; Paper Towns); and Libba Bray (Going Bovine) will enjoy this book also.
Here are two of my favorite quotes from the book:
Karl talking about his dad's politics:
"Before then I just knew that good guys rooted for the Indians, voted Democratic, and went to United Methodist. I wasn't sure whether it was Republicans, Tigers Fans, or Catholics who were the real evil in the world." p. 195
Dick is Karl's AA sponsor:
"Dick came over to say hi; that was okay, talking to your sponsor was a good thing to do. 'Hey, are you feeling okay? Or is it a depressing book?'
'I'm a teenager. I live to read depressing stuff.'
'Yeah, I remember that. Wait'll you hit your mid-twenties and find out smiling is okay again. But you're okay?' " p.101
This book is 530 pages long but it felt like a short book. I didn't want it to end.
It's that good.