Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: Tales of the Madman Underground

Title: Tales of the Madman Underground
Author: John Barnes
Published: June 25, 2009
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Awards: Printz Honor (2010)

How to begin a rave review of one of your favorite books of all time? This book has made me belly laugh, has made me leak little tears, and has made me think, "John Barnes is a genius. Almost everything is perfect. What I would give to write like this." It's one of those books that speaks to me on a fundamental level, and goes beyond just being a satisfying read.

Tales of the Madman Underground is concerned with a topic close to my heart -- teenagers with mental health issues. 

We have one narrator -- Karl Shoemaker -- but the book's heart is derived from its ensemble cast of adolescent headcases that make up the Madman Underground. They are a Breakfast Club-like assemblage of high school archetypes who have united under their shared years in state-funded group therapy.

Karl (Everyman) suffers from acute Mother w/ Dead Dad.

Paul (Aspiring Heterosexual) suffers from morbid Denial w/ Dead Mom.

Danny (Corn-Fed Jock) suffers from Failing Family Farm w/ Crying Jags.

Bonny (Girl Next Door) suffers from Surrogate Parenthood w/ No Money

Squid (Gentle Giant) suffers from Broken Home w/ chronic Bad Luck

Cheryl (Cheerleader) suffers from recurring Funny Uncle w/ Double Life

Darla (Valedictorian) suffers from Borderline Everything w/ Violent Impulses and chronic Weirdness 

The plot hinges on Karl's enactment of Operation Be Fucking Normal -- his plan to successfully evade yearly, school-prescribed group therapy. The progress of his plan is punctuated by reminisces of the Madman Underground's shared history and hijinks. There is no racing plot. The book merely proceeds chapter by gut-busting chapter, sometimes dwelling in the present and sometimes in the past, fleshing out a picture. Without giving anything away, by the end of the book, Karl has grown to understand himself.

The whole book conveys a point, so perfectly. That every person contains multitudes, and self-awareness and self-acceptance -- not normalcy -- are the keys to peace.

Along with the perfect conveyance of a perfect message, the book is accidental-pee level hilarious. Much of the humor is derived from Karl's tone, which is complex. His voice always manages to be layered -- skeptical determination, horrified acceptance, wry exasperation. The richness of Karl's character allows the reader to be present in his narration, and, as a result, laugh at everything that Karl himself finds ridiculous. 

I can't promise that everyone will love this book as much as I do. It's one of those instances where I hope that people would like this book, rather than believe that people will. However, if you appreciate dark humor with a side of pure, sparkly friendship, give Tales of the Madman Underground a shot. 

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