17 May 2011

Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes

From a Booklist starred review: . . . rarely will you read something so lovingly vulgar, so fiercely warmhearted, and so exuberantly expansive that even its long-windedness becomes part of its rogue charm.

Karl Shoemaker is pretty messed up.  He's part of a school-determined therapy group that has nicknamed themselves "Madman Underground" because they're all so messed up.  Each member has his or her own story and therapy usually consists of retelling those stories to a handful of new therapists every couple of years.  Most of them have been in therapy together for too long to remember, so it's all recycled material as far as they're concerned.  No one expects to "get better."  But this book isn't about their problems - of which there are too many.  This book is really about their strength as a friends, about looking out for each other, and about trying to make it one-day-at-a-time in order to survive.

Karl's dad sobered up just in time to die of cancer a few years back, and ever since then his mom has been a raging alcoholic.  Karl works as many odd jobs and side jobs as he can (his therapists and his AA sponsor say that's his method of defense), but has to hide all of his money in stashes around the property so that his mom can't steal it and go on a bender with her loser boyfriends.  All he really wants in life is to be NORMAL.  But it only takes a few moments of "Operation Be F'ing Normal" for Karl to realize that it's going to be practically impossible.  He's the kind of guy who would do anything for a friend, even if that means staying a Madman Underground (definitely NOT normal).

This book has showed up on many librarians' radars and a fair share of recommended reading lists.  Tales of the Madman Underground is raw and true and a fascinating read.  Not for young readers, and not for many adults, this story is for every teen and young adult looking for an escape from life for a while.
Call number: YA BARNES (Teen Room)

Reviewed by kate the librarian.

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