If there's one thing a high school student knows about, it's cliques. The Preps. The JV Jocks. The Varsity Jocks. The Plastics. The Coolest People You Will Ever Meet. Yes, we've seen Mean Girls a few too many times, but admit it—so have you. Regardless, you know how fickle the social structure of high school can be, and how one slip-up can send you flying out of one group and careening into another.
But, what if your situation was a little more serious than just getting approval from the cool kids? What if you had more important things on your mind—like getting the bills paid, keeping your siblings away from abusive family members, or dealing with an alcoholic parent who has a habit of stealing your paycheck? How about working five jobs plus going to school? Jeepers. Life just got a lot more complicated, didn't it?
For the characters of John Barnes' 2009 novel Tales of the Madman Underground, though, all of this is part of a typical day. The book covers five days in the life of Karl Shoemaker, a high school senior who really wants to just be normal for one school year of his life. Belonging to the Madman Underground, a mandatory therapy group for troubled kids, makes this one tall order. For one thing, he has to find a way out of the group. For another, it means abandoning some of the closest friends he didn't know he had.
If this book is about one thing, it's knowing who your friends are and recognizing that they accept you for who you are, no matter how dark or dirty your story gets. For the characters in Tales of the Madman Underground, this becomes one of the most important lessons of all. In general, it's super awkward to be in a group where everyone knows your dirt—but at the end of the day, the Madmen are all in this together. Wouldn't you love to have friends like that?
Let's face it—at some point in your life, you've felt weird. Maybe you're that kid who would rather read a book than go all rah-rah-rah with your classmates and wave pom-poms at a pep rally. Maybe you come from a family that doesn't have very much and everyone at school knows it, or maybe you come from a family that has too much and are plagued by the high expectations that go right along with that. Maybe you have depression, anxiety, autism, or another condition that makes you feel isolated from others or like people would rather judge you than attempt to get to know you.
Regardless of what your story is, you'll be able to find something in Karl's that you can relate to, especially when it comes to his desire to fit in … even if it means giving up his best friends to be accepted. Chances are, you've been in the position to alienate someone in order to make yourself look better—and chances are, you regretted it.
We're not saying Karl Shoemaker is the model all high school students should try to live up to. After all, he swears constantly, is a recovering alcoholic at 17, and hasn't exactly had the greatest role models himself. What we are saying is that the way he learns to deal with other kids his age and with the adults in his life might give you a new way to look at yours. You might decide that you're in a tough home situation where you need to ask a teacher or counselor for help, or you might realize it's time to accept your friends for who they are and apologize for giving them the silent treatment.
Either way, Tales of the Madman Underground is more than just a story about troubled kids. It has some serious lessons to teach you about dealing with adversity and overcoming obstacles.
SF Book Reviews
A brief biography of John Barnes and a list of his books.
Open Road Media
Like Tales of the Madman Underground? Read more about Barnes' other novels.
Teen Reads Review
Want to know what teens think of the book? Read a review of Tales of the Madman Underground from Teenreads.com.
Talk Amongst Yourselves
Want to spend some more time discussing this book? Check out this link for some great discussion questions about Tales of the Madman Underground.
Tales of the Madman Underground Fan Video
A unique dramatization of some classic scenes from the book.
Book Trailer Project
A student book-trailer project for Tales of the Madman Underground. How would yours be different?
Karl's Favorite Songs
Curious about the soundtrack to Karl's life? Here are a few of his favorite tunes. Play them while you read for optimal reading pleasure.
Original Tales of the Madman Underground Book Cover
Cover for the first edition of the book.
Cover for the Second Edition
Second-edition cover for Tales of the Madman Underground. How do you think this one measures up to the first-edition cover?