Review: Tales of the Madman Underground

Wednesday, September 5, 1973:

The first day of Karl Shoemaker’s senior year in stifling Lightsburg, Ohio. For years, Karl’s been part of what he calls “the Madman Underground”—a group of kids forced (for no apparent reason) to attend group therapy during school hours. Karl has decided that senior year is going to be different. He is going to get out of the Madman Underground for good. He is going to act—and be—Normal. But Normal, of course, is relative. Karl has five after-school jobs, one dead father, one seriously unhinged drunk mother . . . and a huge attitude.–From Goodreads

Tales of the Madman Underground is a 2010 Printz Honor Book. Though it takes place during a single week in the 70s, one can easily imagine the same scenarios taking place today. It is easy to sympathize with Karl, who tries desperately hard to be normal, but must fight against the current of his party-going, alcoholic mother, five jobs, school, and the label of “madman” that he has carried for so many years. The other “madmen” come from similarly difficult home lives, but they take care of each other and find their friendships more therapeutic than their endlessly rotating group of counselors. John Barnes’ edgy novel makes you wonder what it means to be normal, how much of it is in our control, and whether normalcy is really all that desirable.

Quotable Quotes from Tales of the Madman Underground

“Useless people are not improved by giving them the impression they are useful.”

“… once you were in, they put a note in your file that said you were in therapy, and all your teachers saw that file. They might as well have tattooed CRAZY on your forehead. The next year every teacher would be watching you for the first weird thing you did—and has there ever been a kid who never does anything an adult considers weird?”

“Supposedly nobody outside the group knew there was a group. Of course we all knew that wasn’t true. High school was like the little clear plastic tunnels that Paul’s hamsters lived in: you could run a long way but never get out, and always, everyone could see you.”

“I always liked that time of day, when people were shutting up their shops, putting the town to bed for the night, going home to do normal stuff with their normal families. I wonder if they got to enjoy being normal, to know just how terrific it was, or whether it was just invisible to them like air? Sometimes I got so pissed off at how easy the normal people had it that I just wanted to walk down the street shaking them and screaming into their squishy self-satisfied faces.”

“It wasn’t that funny, but I laughed. There wouldn’t be much laughter in the world if people didn’t like each other, because there sure as shit aren’t that many good jokes.”

“I realized after I got Jesus, I’d marry “that good woman who put me right with the Lord, got me away from the bottle and taught me what life is really all about.” Which was to say, some church girl that resembles a pile of loose fat upholstered with pale goopy skin, and whose whole life is chocolate cake and visiting her sister.”

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