We will now take a brief break from our story for a little field trip to the Cynical Young Adult Male Protagonists Hall of Fame. Here in these hallowed halls, we pay tribute to the many teenage boys whose complaints, sarcastic quips, profanity, and discourses about the downfall of humanity have graced the pages of some of literature's most renowned works. Marble busts of all the usual suspects are solemnly displayed—Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Ponyboy Curtis—and if you're a phony, you better watch out 'cause they're onto you, sucker.
If all of these guys, plus the others we didn't mention due to spatial limitations, got together and formed a gang, we're pretty sure they'd ask Karl Shoemaker to participate in whatever initiation ritual gets you in. Heck, Holden might even ask him to be his wingman. Anyway, the reason we're speculating about all of this is because Tales of the Madman Underground fits nicely into the canon of Books About Frustrated Teenage Guys, and it's largely due to our main man, Karl.
We're pretty sure we don't have to actually state this, but we're going to anyway: Karl's life kind of stinks. With a mom who's completely checked out of the real world and a dead dad, who just happened to have served several terms as Lightsburg's mayor, it falls on Karl to basically keep his family together and keep things running at home. He has five jobs, and that's not counting the time he spends at school doing damage control from school bullies and insensitive parents for his fellow Madman friends. And you thought having to read this book meant you have it tough.
Karl's so desperate to be anywhere other than Lightsburg that he's willing to volunteer to do something no 18-year-old in his right mind would consider in 1973: He wants to sign up for the Army. Since you probably weren't alive then, let us briefly fill you in—if you joined the Army in 1973, you were going to Vietnam, and chances were 50-50 that you'd come home. So what, you ask? Here's what: Karl thinks that being in a war zone in the most unpopular, epic fail of a war in U.S. history would be a better option than sticking around. Check out his direct testimony on this subject:
"I want out of Lightsburg. I'll always be the Shoemaker boy, here […] A reliable paycheck with free bed and food, and a ticket out of town for good? And all they want me to do is char some babies? Well, all right then, a deal's a deal, line up the cradles, hand me the flamethrower, and fetch me the barbecue sauce." (8.92)
Dang. If that doesn't give you an idea of how discontented this guy is with just being alive, we don't know what does.
What have your parents done to tick you off? Ground you? Not let you date? Tell you you can't watch Game of Thrones until your homework's done? Make you eat your spinach? We're sorry about your pain, but if these are your troubles, Karl has you beat. Try having your mom steal from you and be more interested in partying than providing for your needs.
Karl's relationship with his mom is definitely one of the most complex parts of his character. She has a revolving door of boyfriends, is obsessed with some theory involving Nixon and UFOs, gets high and drunk all the time, and periodically hunts the house for Karl's hidden work wages.
You probably spent a lot of this book wondering why he even puts up with her. A big part of it is that even though she makes him beyond mad, Karl still loves his mom and feels protective of her. He knows that doing something about the situation—i.e., telling someone—would mean getting her in trouble. "I knew what he wanted to ask," Karl says of a discussion about his mom he has with Philbin, his boss at the drugstore. "Should I call the cops about anything? I knew he wanted me to nark on Mom" (6.38).
No matter how much she drives him insane, though, "narking on Mom" isn't the answer to his problems. "She's my mom," Karl tells Mr. Browning. "[…] Mom has a lot of problems. I'm not saying she doesn't. She's a mess, but she's my mom" (21.30). She may be a source of a lot of pain, but Karl's not ditching his mom any time soon.
On top of his mom being nuts, Karl's dad died of lung cancer almost four years ago, and his parents' relationship wasn't exactly awesome before that. In summary, they spent a lot of time getting drunk together and fighting about which one of them was responsible for screwing something up. As a result, Karl walks around town with two different labels being thrown at him—son of Beth Shoemaker, the town drunk, and "Doug Shoemaker's kid to the bone. Defending the helpless and shaking hands" (7.151). His dad was mayor, see, and unlike his mom, he kept his troubled home life under wraps.
In spite of everything, Karl does have one source of stability in his life—the Madman Underground, the mandatory therapy group he and several other kids from his class attend during school hours. It's ironic that stability should come from something that's derived from the most unstable period of Karl's life: Karl beat up the quarterback of the school football team and killed his friend Squid's pet rabbit. As a result of these incidents, Karl's known throughout the school as "Psycho Shoemaker" (4.69). Not to mention his father's death.
In spite of being labeled psychotic, though, Karl actually cares deeply about other people, most especially his therapy group friends. And yet, the primary conflict he faces is whether to go on being friends with them or attempt to forge a new identity by getting out of therapy. Really, he just wants his senior year to be average, and he wants to fly under the radar for the first time in his life. Shoot, what teenager hasn't wanted that?
What's funny is that the more Karl tries to be normal (his stated mission at the beginning of the story), the more he finds himself in situations that attest to just how abnormal his life is—and the more he realizes what a key role the Madmen play in it. "The Madman Underground is all about how much everybody needs each other," he says, "and hauling my ass out of here is all about not needing anybody" (20.42). Ultimately, it's this realization of how much he needs the friends he's been dealt that gives him stability at the end of a pretty unstable story.