Pros:great fun to read; likable characters; satisfying story
Cons:rather long at 532 pages, but wouldn't shorten it
The Bottom Line: John Barnes is best known for his science fiction, but haven't read him before. I hope he continues to write in young adult as well.
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Often when I read a long novel like John Barnes' Tales of the Madman Underground, released this year, I'll have second thoughts about reading it at some point early on. The author throws so much at me in regards to characters or tragic problems they are trying to deal with that I wonder if it's wise to become invested in their lives. With this book being a young adult book I also suspected that it may not hold my interest for that long because I wouldn't be able to relate to the teens who make up the Madman Underground, their name for the therapy group most of them have attended for years at an Ohio high school some driving distance from Toledo. Fortunately I know from experience to ignore those niggling voices in my head and relax. I read on to fall in love with these characters and their very real problems with disappointed or absent parents.
The novel is set in 1973 at the beginning of our madman narrator Karl's senior year in high school. I'm not sure if he has been inspired by the author's memories of his high school experience, but since Barnes does claim in the back that his parents joked that he'd never be able to hold a steady job (after explaining the many jobs he's had and the twenty-seven other books he‘s published), I see some similarities between him and Karl. Neither probably get much sleep because they're always working at different things and it's a safe bet that neither are normal people, but quite mad!
Karl wants to be considered normal this year for once and to avoid being sent to therapy with new, ridiculous therapists every few months or so. Everyone then knows he's crazy and he can't make new friends. To his consternation his best friend Paul, also a madman, is avoiding him and it begins to hurt him, even though he wants to be normal and not associate with madmen. This is the least of his problems, however, when we realize why Karl has been in therapy for years. His father died after a long illness when the boy was in eighth grade and his mother was left completely lost and unable to be a responsible mother. It being 1973 during Watergate and the Vietnam aftermath, she turned to smoking pot, going to bars, sleeping with losers and becoming obsessed with astrology and UFOs. She also stole her son's stashes of cash (when found) and wrote IOUs she never paid. The father did teach Karl how to fix up the house and be very responsible, which is what he did, as well as pick up odd paying jobs, to keep his mom and he living in the house. That alone didn't qualify him as mad, but he was so angry and hurt that he became 'pretty f*cking crazy' and terrified people. I could understand why.
Karl has such a sardonic wit when he describes his endearing madman friends, teachers, parents, bosses that I could picture everyone clearly except for Karl himself. He didn't describe himself at all, which is probably typical of teens who are under so much stress and don't really like themselves. I found myself liking him more and more as his first day of senior year passed into the second and third, through a weekend and his first Monday at school when therapy began. At first I wasn't sure about him, but his plan to become normal soon fizzled out and he ultimately realizes he wants to still be part of Madman Underground, to be there for his friends when they needed him. He reminded me of Holden Caulfield, the equally sarcastic narrator of the classic 70s' novel Catcher in the Rye.
It should be noted that half of the group are young women, Karl is still a virgin because he wouldn't risk getting a girl pregnant when he had the chance, his best friend confirms the rumors that he's gay (not just a gay wh*re for fun, not why he‘s a madman) but is okay with just being friends with Karl, and, cat lovers beware, there's a raccoon ripping apart and eating the many pretty kitties his mom loves, which she believes is the work of her son who then buries them in Cat Arlington (cemetery). So Karl is basically a nice, respectful, hardworking guy with the usual bad language of stressed-out teen kids that some parents would love to censor, but he comes off as a real guy to me. His little town life and all of the wonderfully eccentric characters amused me. I think it'll amuse you, too. Check out the twenty-seven titled chapters if you doubt me:"Two stooges short of an act," "I was a third grade communist," and "How many madman stories ever made any sense?" Because of a new, cool girl in their group Karl often tells her about what the madmen have crazily done in the past. It's fun.
While I enjoyed the realistically hopeful ending that could mean Karl's life would be much better, especially since his money was now out of her reach, I wish as a cat lover that Barnes had let Karl or the hunters catch that horrible old raccoon! Tales of the Madman Underground captivated me til the last page and I hope you'll read it.
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