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Tales of the Madman Underground Review

By Theresa Wagner | Staff Writer

madman-underground-1x8i1e5January 25, 2012

Coming-of-age stories have had their spotlight bulb polished to a fair shine by the success of young adult novelist John Green, as well as the publicity granted from the recent stretching of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the big screen.

With this near plethora of easily found, quality books from the same genre dutifully read and effortlessly enjoyed, I was quite looking forward to a good mystery or perhaps one of those wonderfully twisted texts of which the reader has little hope of even pinpointing the genre, let alone beginning to understand.

Instead, through a series of events not worthy of explanation, I was stuck reading The Tales of a Madman Underground by John Barnes, the coming-of-age story of Karl Shoemaker, a high school student in the early 1970s.

The small Ohio town where the teen resides is dwindling to extinction, but that hasn’t stopped the local high school from having a therapy group to flaunt their alleged acceptance of mental illnesses.

Predictably enough, getting a “ticket” to the weekly meetings intrinsically ostracizes the recipient; thus, Karl–it being his senior year and all–has one mission: to be normal.

There are many issues with this young lad’s plan, the foremost being that his friends are the therapy kids, or, as dubbed by his best buddy Paul, the “Madmen.”

Perhaps this wouldn’t have been a problem if the parents within this novel did an adequate job when caring for their children.

Rather, Karl, already juggling five jobs and an alcoholic mother who hoards cats and is trying to steal his cash, has to keep bailing his friends out of situations brought by circumstances just as bad, if not worse, than his own.

All of this is portrayed through the humorous first person narration of a realistic high school-aged character with unique, equally believable friends.

Karl’s loyalty and other honorable traits are evened out by his propensity for blind fits of anger and his recovering alcoholism.

This leads to a credible conclusion that helps Karl, as well as a potential aid to many of the Madmen’s trouble. The novel closes with a touching scene sure to be looked back on by all the involved characters with heartfelt nostalgia.

All in all, Tales of the Madman Underground was a surprising and more than satisfying read with its only noteworthy fault being perhaps overextending the freedom of the first person narration to the point where, even if obviously deliberate, some sentences required rereading to fully comprehend.

I would suggest this book highly, especially to fans of Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story and John Green’s Paper Towns.

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