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Tales of the Madman Underground Hardcover – June 25, 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Starred Review. Grade 9 Up–Karl Shoemaker, in group therapy at school since fourth grade, turns a new leaf on the first day of senior year, 1973. His goal is to be normal and avoid therapy while still keeping his friends, who are all part of the Madman Underground. Karl's widowed mother is an alcoholic, hippie, conspiracy-theorist slut who steals his earnings (he has five jobs) for benders. At one time or another, most Madmen are locked out of their houses by drunk or absent parents, or don't go home to avoid getting beaten, or felt up. They depend on one another's hospitality by way of empty basements, open windows, and unlocked cars. Barnes writes with amazing ease and clarity. He has a light, immediate feel for character, and the ensemble of Madmen, teachers, parents, and crotchety townspeople is distinct and fully formed. Dialogue between Karl and this motley crew is mostly hilarious, expletive laden, and consistently flawless. Karl's conversations with Marti, the newest Madman, are among the most heart-melting in teen literature. Barnes's descriptions of small-town Ohio defy the usual pitfalls of the back-when-the-author-was-a-teen setting–Lightsburg is so believably backward it seems timeless. While a moral dilemma may seem an underwhelming plot device, Karl's psychological journey is consistently gripping. His narration is so easy and engaging, so sweet and funny, so astonishingly truthful that teens will rip through these 500-plus pages and want more.–Johanna Lewis, New York Public Library
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* After a long career in science fiction, Barnes has taken a heroic stab at the Great American Novel. Set over the span of just six days in 1973—but weighing in at more than 500 pages—Barnes’ coming-of-age epic is overlong, tangled with tangents, and takes a kitchen-sink approach when it comes to teenage trauma. Yet 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. It’s the story of Karl Shoemaker, a senior starting the first week of classes in his blue-collar Ohio town. This year he’s determined to execute Operation Be Fucking Normal, but that isn’t easy when he is working five jobs to pay the bills of his drunkard, star-child mother; wakes up early to clean up the poop from their zillions of cats (and bury the dead ones in their backyard Cat Arlington); and is deeply connected to the other kids forced to take school therapy—aka the Madman Underground. The plot is slight, but Karl’s fellow madmen revel in their wild tales of survival and revenge, and the culmination comes off like a high-school One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Always ambitious, often caustic, and frequently moving. Grades 9-12. --Daniel Kraus
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers; 1 edition (June 25, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067006081X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670060818
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,374,312 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Karl Shoemaker has one goal for his senior year: be normal. He plans on taking it one day at a time, and his quest for normalcy includes letting go of the abnormal in his life. This involves intentionally avoiding his best friend Paul, actually taking college-track classes, meeting new people (girls especially), stopping enabling his alcoholic mother, and staying afloat with his five jobs. Above all else, Karl is looking to punch his ticket out of what he believes is really holding him back: group therapy.

For some reason, teachers in the '70s thought school-mandated therapy was the best response for kids with problems. With 17 counselors (and counting) over the past five years or so, the Madman Underground certainly has their share of problems. One of the members talks to a stuffed rabbit she carries around, another has crying jags over the littlest things, and the file grows thicker for every other person in the group. Not even a brand new member, a girl named Marti who Karl immediately hits it off with, can keep Karl from wanting to return to the place where "normal" is left at the door. Karl wasn't always a part of group therapy, though, and he believes there is hope for leaving Lightsburg, Ohio --- and his family's past --- behind.

The Shoemaker name is famous in Lightsburg, and no one will let Karl forget it. His father, Doug, was a widely popular mayor until an unfortunate political scandal and then an even more untimely death. His mother never quite recovered, and her already heavy drinking led to full-blown alcoholism. Karl never knows what kind of mother will show up on a daily basis and usually manages to tiptoe around her drunken rages.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I thought this book would be my kind of book and I was right. 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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This novel is highly recommended to teenagers. I loved it personally, because it was an easy read, and it was incredibly entertaining. Barnes' writing allows the readers to immerse themselves into the novel very quickly, and live in the town of Lightsburg, Ohio with Karl, Paul, and the rest of the Madmen. I loved the way that Barnes pokes fun at the social norms of the 70's and the things that seem important to most teenagers, no matter what their situation is. This book is relate-able and well written, and I absolutely recommend it to teenagers who are going through tough times. I would even recommend it to teenagers who are well off as well, because it may give you an opportunity to step out of your $175 shoes and into the shoes of kids who are struggling to take care of themselves, their siblings, and even their own parents. Great book.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Once I got over expecting the main characters to be attacked by zombies or stolen away by an invading army of flying saucers, I was able to relax and enjoy this untraditional John Barnes book.

Barnes is best known to me as an author of some of my favorite science-fiction novels. When I saw this book and realized I'd missed it on publication, I immediately grabbed an e-copy and set about reading it without even knowing what it was about. I'm a big John Barnes fan.

It is not science fiction. It's your regular, everyday retro fiction set in the early 1970's in a small Ohio town. Karl Shoemaker, son of the former mayor, former town drunk, and current dead man, is about to start his senior year in high school and he's got a plan. For years, Karl has been a member of what was called -- among its members -- the Madman Underground. They were a semi-covert group of students who all had been assigned to therapy for a variety of problems. Karl, though, has had enough. He wants to spend one year when he's not in therapy with yet another clueless therapist.

Thus, Karl launches Operation Be F***ing Normal. The first thing he did was stop drinking and join AA, which promptly lost him his girlfriend. Working five jobs and keeping an eye on his perpetually pleasure-seeking hippie wannabe mom, Karl doesn't have a lot of time for fun. That, however, doesn't stop him from trying, even without a girlfriend.

Mostly, though, his free time is spent helping his friends from the Madman Underground and getting into the same sorts of situations that require help from those same friends.

Tales from the Madman Underground is an interesting book. The voice of Karl Shoemaker is hilariously real and sadly familiar all at once. Too many kids face the same problems as Karl.
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