Study Guide

Bill in Tales of the Madman Underground

By John Barnes


Beth has been through a long line of boyfriends since Karl's dad died, but based on where we leave the Shoemaker family at the end of this book, Bill just might be the one who sticks. An English professor at Saint Jerome College in Sandusky, Bill ends up in a bar in Lightsburg on an alcoholic rampage, where fate brings him and Beth together. According to Karl, he even looks the part: "He looked like an English professor that wanted to be a folksinger, which is to say, a dork who wanted to be a bigger dork" (19.93). Ha.

Common sense would tell us that Bill and Beth are a match made in hell. Both are alcoholics. Both have spotty histories with relationships. They meet in a bar. And yet, Bill seems to be one of the only adults in this book with his head on straight. He's the only one who doesn't lose his cool when he and the moms find Marti and Karl in the hotel room together, and he even tries to talk Marti's mom out of making Karl get tested for STDs. And finally, a serendipitous meeting with Dick and Gratz leads Bill to spearhead Operation Get Karl a Bank Account and Straighten Out Beth.

Beth's final scene also seems to indicate that Bill will be sticking around. When Karl comes home after his night out at McDonald's with the Madmen, he walks in to find that "Bill was sitting on the couch with Mom and she was just leaning on his shoulder" (27.45). It's a small detail, but it suggests that Beth and Bill have both finally found stability somewhere within each other's horrible dysfunction. We don't know what life looks like for these characters after the book ends, but we sure hope the two of them are able to help each other out of the holes they're in.