Tales of the Madman Underground is not the feel-good read of this or any other year, and yet I am completely enchanted with its accuracy of teenage desperation. It fills me with hope to see how author John Barnes has so succinctly summed up the powerlessness and determination of youth.
Karl Shoemaker's dad is dead. His mom is stealing Karl's money, blowing it on drugs. He works four jobs to keep the two of them halfway afloat. All he really wants this new school year, September 1973, is to not get sent to the Madman Underground.
That's the name for the mental health group that certain students are assigned to—students who come from bad circumstances, make bad decisions, or simply cry during a sad story. That last heinous offense is what sent Karl there.
Members of the Madman Underground all have different backgrounds and belong to a variety of social circles. It's a veritable Breakfast Club of clique crossing. Even if you're the most popular girl in school or on the football team or a social reject, one teacher's note can get you sent to the Underground. Despite their differences, these students look out for each other.
So Karl attempts to pass as normal, make money, read Huckleberry Finn for his hyper-macho English teacher, and basically do whatever he can to find survival and some sense of happiness. He is a teen hero for the ages, smarter than Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, tougher than Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and yet on the same endearing level as both.
I first read this book several years ago, and it has stuck with me through all of that time. It is certainly not for anyone who has qualms with language or violence. Mature teens and adults are best suited for its length and themes.
It qualifies as the funniest, most unsettling account of high school life I have encountered, yet all of it comes across as incredibly authentic. There are kids who take care of themselves because their parents are unfit to do so. There are kids who are clinging onto whatever sense of community they can grasp, even if it is a bunch of mental misfits.
Tales of the Madman Underground is wonderful and horrible, disturbing and hilarious. If there has ever been a book that has captured the insanity of teenage life, this is it.