Once you were in, they put a note in your file that said you were in therapy, and all your teachers saw that file. They might as well have tattooed CRAZY on your forehead. The next year every teacher would be watching you for the first weird thing you did—and has there ever been a kid who never does anything an adult considers weird? (1.56)
Another problem is that the teachers—who probably have less professional psychology experience than we do at Shmoop—pick the kids who belong in the program based on a hazy scale of weirdness. Which is dumb because teenagers are weird, so by this logic, the whole school should be one giant Madman Underground.
I guess up until just a few years before Paul and me went into it, there wasn't much mental health care in schools […] When I asked Dad why I had to go to a shrink, back in fourth grade, he told me Mr. Knauss, Paul's dad, had worked really hard to get school psychologists into the budget, which was good enough for me right there. Then he leaned forward and looked me right in the eye and added, "Karl, we are finally advanced enough to admit some kids need help and provide it for them." (Which told me I was one of those kids.) (1.51-52)
Child psychology isn't really one of our specialties here at Shmoop, but we will say this—a big problem with Lightsburg's therapy program is that they seem to be offering help for these kids out of obligation rather than because they believe there's a genuine need. Because they're trying to be "advanced" rather than helping the students, their motives have always been skewed. This probably explains why the relationships among the Madmen themselves have done more good for them than the parade of therapists they've had.
Bradshaw was being so nice he got me crying, and I told him how I felt sick as fuck about that rabbit, sometimes I had bad dreams about how its jaw had worked against my hand, the way it rubbed its nose on my palm wanting to be petted, the second when I could feel the pulse in its soft throat, and then the ripping feeling in my hand and the warm blood squirting all over my arm. Come to admit it, it was the first time I'd cried in months, and it was pretty hard to stop once I got going. (4.35)
We here at Shmoop would like to apologize for the sick feeling you just got in your gut as well as the nightmares about dead bunnies you'll have this evening. But, we really do feel this passage is important for showing the mental state Karl was in around the time his dad was dying. Obviously, there was serious anger and depression that needed to be released in a major way. It just happened that Squid's bunny was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Every single shrink the group had ever had, since I was in ninth grade, said that the way I lived, always working and always making money, was a "defense."
They always said it like it was something wrong. There is nothing wrong with having a defense if you're attacked, I said, inside, where they couldn't get on my tits, trying to make me say, "Oh, now I understand everything, and I am all better Mister Shrink Sir and now I will live just like you think I should." (6.14-15)
Here's the other problem with the Lightsburg therapy program: There's way too much of telling the kids what to do and how to live and not enough of helping them deal with the identity and family issues that landed them there to begin with. Pat answers aren't going to solve the problem. At least when we leave the Madmen with Leslie Schwinn at the end of the book, there seems to be a chance that they have a therapist who isn't nuttier than they are.
She moved around to see what I had been looking at. "Class of 1961. Just twelve years ago. They all look so normal."
"That's pretty much what I was thinking. I can't tell who was a social, who was a dork, or anything." (7.73-74)
Black-and-white school photos that resemble mug shotsthe great social equalizer. Also, really great at hiding people's issues.
"This is all very funny," Schwinn said, meaning it wasn't. "Now, if you're all done—"
"Done? […] Lady, some of us have been here eight or ten years and we're never getting 'done.' We're just graduating. I mean, that's our point, if you haven't gotten that yet. We need the group to get by, but we ain't getting better." (25.59-60)
Karl about sums it up here. It's the social relationships within the group, not the group itself, that helps them "get by." The fact that there's a therapist facilitating the thing is purely incidental.
When SkyMusic had gotten clawed up by a raccoon and been in godawful pain from his infected wounds, I'd broken down—I had sworn I'd never spend a dime on those cats, but he was suffering so bad—and taken him to the vet myself, and Mom had screamed at me all that night about it, and taken SkyMusic's painkillers for herself and flushed his antibiotics down the toilet because all he needed were herbs and love. (1.15)
In this particular situation, we're pretty sure Beth wasn't the only person acting insane. Poor SkyMusic probably wasn't feeling real with it mentally, either. The fact that the cat's name is SkyMusic also probably added insult to injury.
[Darla] got her ticket for being weird and obnoxious but she really did have problems, like burning herself with cigarettes and cutting little bits of skin off with a razor blade. When she was in ninth grade, the cops came to her house and she had dragged her seven-year-old brother, Logan, into the bathroom and threatened to blind him with Drano. (3.22)
The faculty members-turned-child psychologists who earmark kids for therapy sometimes get it right. Obviously, Darla is someone who really needs help. She talks to a stuffed bunny, mutilates her body, almost scarred her younger brother for life, and seems to have issues with behaving appropriately in matters, um, involving the opposite sex.
That was annoying. Us Madmen didn't associate with each other in public. We didn't need some dumbass football player or one of the jackoff smart kids to come up to us and make bibby-bibby noises with his finger and lip. Even though it was the seventies and like half the people you saw in movies were seeing a therapist, it was cool in the movies, but not in real life. (3.44)
Isn't this still a problem high school kids with issues like anxiety, depression, and social disorders have today? It's portrayed all the time on TV and in the movies, but in real life, there's a stigma against dealing with it or even talking about it. Clearly, this problem existed in the 1970s, too.
Everyone was quiet—we often were. I mean, Monday morning, not a lot of small talk subjects, how would you launch a conversation?
So, how's the medication working out?
Hey, too bad your mom got arrested again.
Hey, aren't the new sheets on the Salvation Army bunks great?" (9.3-6)
Obviously, Karl has some serious sarcasm going on here, but he makes his point—what kind of small talk do you make with peers whose lives are such a mess that small talk in itself seems ridiculous?
I had developed this theory all summer: if I could be perfectly, ideally, totally normal for the first day of my senior year, which was today, then I could do it for the first week, which was only Wednesday through Friday. And if I could be normal for that first short week, I could do it for the next long week. After that, I'd just have to repeat the have-a-normal-week process seven more times. I'd worked out a calendar. (1.1)
Maybe you lack the massive dysfunction of Karl's life, but this is one thing you most likely can relate to. What teenager doesn't want to be normal? Thing is, as most young-adult heroes figure out at some point, it's not exactly that easy.
I always liked that time of day, when people were shutting up their shops, putting the town to bed for the night, going home to do normal stuff with their normal families. I wondered if they got to enjoy being normal, to know just how terrific it was, or whether it was just invisible to them like air? Sometimes I got so pissed off at how easy the normal people had it that I just wanted to walk down the street shaking them and screaming into their squishy self-satisfied faces. (7.1)
When it comes down to it, Karl is jealous of other people for (seemingly) being normal because they don't seem to realize how lucky they are. Really, though, are they? If he could see what was really going on inside those houses, he might be surprised.
I shrugged. "Well, shit, I want out of Lightsburg. I'll always be the Shoemaker boy, here. And I'm not one of your peace-and-love never-comb-your-hair never-take-a-bath never-finish-a-sentence just be-be-be me-me-me free-free-free and love-me-'cause-I'm-so-mellow-groove-a-delic hippie freak types, anyway. 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)
Ever live in a sibling's shadow? Worse, have you ever lived in a parent's shadow? Karl is doomed to forever be known in Lightsburg as "the mayor's kid"—make that "the drunken ex-mayor who wouldn't give his blessing to the plastic development neighborhood project's kid." What's really sad is that in a time when joining the Army was what most kids his age were trying to avoid, Karl is ready to hit the road for Vietnam tomorrow if they'd let him.
"In the first place, maybe I'm wrong and you're a turd, but you seem like a pretty decent guy. I don't think you have it in you to really cut off all your old friends, and I don't think you're going to like being normal. Here's a whole line of cars full of kids; how many of them are normal? Most of them, right, by definition? And if you threw a rock down the line what would be your chance of hitting a happy person?" (12.27)
In Karl's screwed-up world, the only person with a lick of reason is a skinny girl with braces who looks like a tree in a Dr. Seuss book. Marti may not be normal herself, but she at least knows what's what in terms of social politics.
Mom already looked real different than she had when Dad was alive. Her hair wasn't long yet, but instead of the ash-blonde pageboy, she now had an untidy mop of hooker-blonde yellow hair; she sort of looked like a dandelion smoking a cigarette. Just now, she was in a tie-dyed halter top that she'd bought the week before, and a lot of clunky jewelry, and very low tight jeans. It was like she was going to a costume party as Darla. (14.7)
Think Karl and his friends are the only characters searching for an identity? Think again. After Karl's dad dies, it's almost like his mom doesn't know where to go from there. So, she dyes her hair, starts going by Beth instead of Betty, and starts dressing like she leads a double life as a hippie and a working girl. She's going about it in a really messed-up way, but perhaps Beth really just wants to be normal herself.
He made himself stand up straight, which must have hurt. He turned and stalked away in his funny I'm-mad stiffed legged strut. I guess he has a right to be mad, I thought, and just like that, right as I thought that, I became aware of kids whispering "Psycho," and it was like a red fog just switched off, leaving me standing in an ordinary hallway. (15.97)
Karl is not just "the mayor's kid"—at school, he's also known as "the psycho who killed Squid's rabbit and beat the poop out of the quarterback." When you're in high school, the last thing you want is a reputation. Not to mention the fact that this particular reputation puts a serious damper on his plan to be normal.
"Some years ago […] Karl did a couple really bad things, which were pretty scary—well, really scary—and so a lot of kids that don't know him call him 'Psycho Shoemaker,' which really hurts his feelings and is so unfair, but it also means that some kids who don't know him are scared shitless of Karl." (17.50)
Karl may be the school psycho, but at least his friends know who he really is. In particular, it's kind of awesome that Bonny defends Karl, even though they broke up because he didn't want to drink with her anymore.
I thought how normal kids were probably spending their Friday nights after a game. Probably having pizza, or road drinking, or making out. Whereas I was standing on Mug Me Street in Toledo, Ohio, with a baseball bat and a purse. (17.93)
The Madmen's night out in Toledo to rescue Paul from the gay stroll has to be some kind of turning point where Karl realizes that this is his life, and no matter how hard he tries, he's never going to be normal. Really, it's probably one of the first moments in the book where he starts to realize Marti could actually be right about giving up on his friends being a bad idea.
After a block, [Paul] said, "When we had that fight I was really hurt."
"I'm sorry I called you a faggot. I know you're not."
"But I am." (21.84-86)
Ultimately, a big part of Tales of the Madman Underground is the characters coming to a sense of acceptance of who they are and deciding to own up to what they can't change. In this case, Paul is gay, and that's really the end of that story. It's funny how Karl tries to tell him he isn't even though both of them know otherwise. Just as Paul set an example for Karl when they were kids, he's now showing Karl how to gracefully accept who he is.
You know how a girl who isn't naturally pretty will wear too much makeup and get way too careful about matching colors? Or the way a not-so-smart guy who wishes he was smart will always bring up some really hard book he read, or keeps repeating the only fact he knows about a subject? So you always keep noticing that she's not really pretty, or he's not really smart, and they can feel you noticing that, so they get all insecure and keep doing it more? That was Larry and weird. (5.3)
It might be the 1970s, but guess what—high school kids still had identity crises. It's hard to notice because the Madmen's larger family issues engulf our attention, but beneath all of the abuse and neglect, they're just trying to figure out who they are. Even Larry, who just wants to be as bizarre as possible.
Paul started calling the therapy group the "Madman Underground," and everyone else picked it up. The name stuck like a coat of paint, at least inside the group. And supposedly nobody outside the group knew there was a group. Of course we all knew that wasn't true. High school was like the little clear plastic tunnels that Paul's hamsters lived in: you could run a long way, but never get out, and always, everyone could see you. (1.79)
Being a social outcast in high school under normal circumstances is pretty bad. Being a social outcast who is also known to be part of a therapy group for weirdos and head cases is a fate you probably wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Or, maybe you would. If so, you're pretty hardcore. Either way, the Madmen have to live double lives individually as well as a group. Once every other week, they come together in their Madmen union and share their dirt, but the rest of the time, they play like they don't know each other.
The next Madman in was Danny, in his FFA jacket. Paul always said that he probably slept in it and you couldn't prove he didn't have it on under his football uniform. He was a one-man two-clique wonder, leader of jocks and farm boys alike. Three-clique, really, the smart kids let him hang with them to show they could be tolerant. Four, I guess, if you counted the Madman Underground. (3.16)
Like Cheryl, Danny is one of those kids who's been blessed with social-chameleon abilities. Despite his inclusion in the Madman Underground, his athletic prowess and zeal for Future Farmers of America seem to be enough to earn him status as a Popular Guy.
Cheryl was the queen of the socials—all the cute perky girls with big smiles that knew everybody. She was the secretary or vice president for every club and committee, always at every party, and never missed a game […] But even though she was Queen of the Socials, Cheryl was even more the Queen of the Madman Underground. (3.3)
Some of the Madmen—Cheryl, most obviously—are able to pull off the incredible feat of being both nuts and popular at the same time. Which really just makes us think that Cheryl's life has to be really exhausting. Popular cheerleader by day, protector of her molested, traumatized sister by night? Dude, that's a lot to take on.
That was annoying. Us Madmen didn't associate with each other in public. We didn't need some dumbass football player or one of the jackoff smart kids to come up to us and make bibby-bibby noises with his finger and lip. (3.44)
So, basically, the context for this passage is that Gratz likes to embarrass the Madmen by calling them out at the end of class, like, every single day, which totally blows their cover of pretending not to know each other outside of therapy. By the way, isn't it kind of hypocritical for them to get all up on Karl for wanting to ditch the group when they all ignore each other all the time? Double standard, much?
I guess I could have told Coach Stuckey, but I didn't want to be a nark and a crybaby. I'd have to go away to the State Home for Terminal Pussies with a big P tattooed on my forehead. Besides, who the hell were they going to believe, the popular QB or skinny little Shoemaker whose dad used to be mayor before being the town drunk? Al's dad, who was at every game cheering like a nut, or a spooky ghost like my dad, a dying bundle of sticks and scraggly hair? I knew where I was on the ladder. And where Al was. (4.17-18)
Apparently, being the ex-mayor's kid doesn't score you enough points to earn a solid place on the high school social ladder—especially when that ex-mayor is a drunk and dying. The fact that Karl gets up the guts to take the situation with Al into his own hands is remarkable enough in itself.
"Well, then." She drew a deep breath. "If I don't go—or if I do go—will I get social leprosy?"
"Depends on who you want it with. If you do go you get social leprosy with the drama types, the school paper, the Poetry Club, and both the serious intellectuals […]
On the other hand, if you don't go to the First Day Dance, you get social leprosy with the socials, the jocks, the Glee Club fairies, the hoods'n'sluts, and all the clubs that begin with F." (5.65-66, 68)
Dude, Lightsburg High has more cliques than the school in Mean Girls. Their names are definitely more creative, and there are legitimate threats of social leprosy in relation to going to school dances. That's pretty serious.
In one of the dozen or so inhabited houses that huddled around one side street, an old lady named Rose Carson had a sofa that needed re-covered. Browning had gone to high school with her; that was where he got a lot of his business, people he'd known in school. I figured that was probably how he'd gotten his big break, when he re-covered Moses's living room set. (10.50)
NewsflashDark Ages.they had cliques roughly a million years ago, too … or at least when Browning was a teenager back in the
"Karl, you're such a baby. Grow up. It's a therapy group, okay? A therapy group. Where they put weird loser kids. We don't have some kind of mystical magical Madman mystique. It's not the club where all the geeks get to be special. What it is, is where fucked-up kids go." (15.93)
We know Paul is trying to run his own version of Operation Be Normal, but there's something in this passage that tells us he's trying to convince himself of all this more than he's trying to convince Karl. Remember, Paul doesn't really want to leave the Madmen—which means he probably needs to preach to himself about it even more.
"I understand how much you just want a year of things being the way they're supposed to be. Shit, when I get home the first thing I do is make sure my grandpa's not in my sister's bed, or she's not curled up someplace crying. And I'm a cheerleader, and popular, and all that crap. I feel like, god, I should only be worrying about cute boys, and what to wear, and college applications." (18.38)
We've already speculated about how life must be downright exhausting for Cheryl, and here's the proof: On the outside, she's popular, pretty, and normal, but the truth is, there are probably very few people outside the Madman Underground who know the truth about what's going on at home. Kind of makes you want to be a little less hard on the cheerleaders—after all, you don't know what they're facing when they leave school.
Bonny was a cheerleader because she did anything that would look good on those college apps—cheerleader, choir solos, Service Club, plus all the science clubs, math team, and chess team, but she wasn't much of a conformist. Today she was looking sort of like Grace Slick or Janis Joplin after a three-year famine. (3.63)
Dang, what is it with all of these Madmen girls managing to land spots on the cheerleading squad? There's something kind of twisted about that when you think about it—Cheryl's and Bonny's lives outside school are pretty dismal, and yet they dress up in little skirts once a week and yell "go team go" while smiling real big. Maybe they're involved with so much stuff because they're trying to convince people they're normal, too.
Thinking about Dad was a bad way to start the plan because it could make me blow acting normal all to hell and nobody would understand, since he'd been dead for almost four years—four years exactly on October 17. Which I had noted would fall on Week Six of Operation Be Fucking Normal. Don't think about that. (1.5)
We tend to forget about Karl's dad because the present events in his life are so, well, present. But the fact remains: Karl lost his dad, and losing a parent as a teenager messes with your head. Karl tends to hide or even diminish his emotions, and yet we can sense that he's completely not over losing his father—as well he shouldn't be.
I think that's why us Madmen loathed [Gratz]. Switching back and forth between this-is-the-way-the-world-is, my-way-or-the-highway tough, and remorseful big-wuvvy-teddy-bear-sweet, was what a lot of us saw at home—the behavior of a father who beats his kids or fucks them. (2.100)
Yikes. Having a teacher who emotionally behaves much the same way as your abusive parents do would probably mess you up pretty badly. For the Madmen, school should be an escape, and yet Gratz gives them a glimpse of the thing they're trying to get away from.
"And I know maybe you're thinking about Doug … aw, shit, Karl, I didn't get along with your dad and all but I did love him and I miss him, too … shit. What I was going to say is that he was the mayor here, they elected him three times, and Shoemaker Avenue is named after his great-grandpa […] The cemetery is full of his people and my people, and we all go to college." (2.67)
Beth Shoemaker is one of the first literary moms we've met who actually attempts to lecture her kid about the importance of college when she herself never went and is drunk while giving said lecture. Really, Karl probably ends up in college prep classes because of a drunk monologue his mom doesn't really remember giving—not because he owes something to his family's legacy.
I couldn't quit the team. It was a big deal to Dad. He saved the stories from the Lightsburg Lighthouse—they did a "preseason" about us, a story about each game, and a "postseason," where Coach Stuckey mentioned me in a list of about ten guys he was expecting more from next year. Dad put yellow Hi-Liter on my name; that and the honor roll were the only times I appeared in the paper while he was alive. (4.13)
Ever do something for absolutely no reason other than that it would make your parents happy? The pressure to do that under normal circumstances is pretty big, but throw a parent dying of cancer on top of that and it just makes things worse. It doesn't seem to matter that Karl isn't a star player on the team or is barely anybody of note; his dad is still proud and impressed.
He looked right into my eyes. Nice a guy as old Philbin usually was, he had some of that closed mind that Lightsburg turned out like soybeans and corn. I knew what he wanted to ask. Are you okay with the way she fucks around? Is she ever sober at night? Does she let Neil hit you? Should I call the cops about anything? I knew he wanted me to nark on Mom. I gave him a slack face, hoping I looked like I was thinking about hitting him, afraid I looked like I was about to cry, probably just looking like I was real dumb. (6.38)
The entire community of Lightsburg seems to live under this unspoken creed that family business is family business and you don't get involved with that … even if people have been talking, and you know for a fact that the situation is dire.
He laughed. "Doug Shoemaker's kid, to the bone. Defending the helpless and shaking hands." He clapped my shoulder and walked away. I resisted the urge to wipe my shoulder. (7.151)
One big part of why Karl hates Lightsburg is that when people look at him, they see his dad, not who he really is individually and on his own. The fact that his dad was a high-profile figure who let down a huge portion of the community by not supporting the plastic housing development kicks things up several notches. Whether Karl likes it or not, his family legacy precedes him.
That settled all the big questions, so Mom got me cleaned up and put to bed. I remember her hugging me extra hard and saying, "Your dad does love you, Tiger, and I know you love him, but try not to be like him, 'kay?" (11.41)
Just to recap the context of this scene, Karl's dad just went outside to get drunk because he swore at his son for thinking Communism had honorable qualities. Before that, his parents got in a drunken brawl that ended with his dad's birthday cake on the floor. Finally, the evening concludes with his mom telling him not to grow up and be like his dad. And that, folks, is a happy family evening in Lightsburg.
When Squid finished, he put his head down and muttered for a moment. I glanced his way. "Oh, Mom always said it was stupid to give thanks before you got the thing, the time to thank was after you had it, so she said grace at the end of the meal. So I—well, you know."
"Yeah. Every time I pick up a tool I hear my dad's voice." (16.140-141)
Squid and Karl (and Paul, even though he's not in this passage) all share the common experience of losing a parent. For them in particular, the kindness Karl showed Squid when his mom died has made this commonality a special bond for them. To talk about the things they miss about their parents is a language both can easily understand.
At first we thought that that sad pile of torn paper could be put back together like a puzzle. But it quickly turned out to be hopeless; the dried-out pieces broke in our hands, that old gravity furnace made it so hot up in my room, and so dry, that four winters had pretty much destroyed it.
After a while we both gave up; there was no way to get it all laid out and then tape it together.
"I'm so sorry, Karl," she said. Her eyes were clear and calm, like the Mom I remembered; I almost cried right then. (23.111-113)
Karl didn't just lose his dad—in the aftermath of his father's death, he lost his mom, and she became someone barely recognizable to him. The incident with tearing up the list, though, seems to bring her back to reality, providing a wake-up call of what she's actually done to her son.
I had a familiar, numb, sick feeling as I pocketed the IOU. I'd paste it in my account book later. She'd just wiped out what I'd made gardening in a month, or three McDonald's paychecks. Figure it any way you liked, there were some days of my life I worked for nothing, and sure as shit I was never getting them back because Mom's IOU wasn't worth wiping your butt with. (1.25)
A lack of boundaries is a huge problem in Karl's family, especially when it comes to his mom thinking it's totally OK to raid his bank account. The fact that she thinks IOUs are a perfectly acceptable way of handling the situation shows how immature she really is. Rather than respect Karl for being hard-working, she diminishes how much he does to care for their home.
I looked at that bottle of cheap fake wine and saw things real clear, the way you see them just before you start to drink to get drunk: I would drink away my money and time and energy, and be a fucked-up failure all through my twenties, probably hanging around the high school […] If I kept drinking I'd never leave Lightsburg. (2.83, 87)
Just as a friendly reminder, Karl is a teenage alcoholic, which is probably slightly worse than being a teenage werewolf. Therefore, the moment when he decides that drinking is only going to make him turn out like his parents and that he needs to quit is pretty pivotal to his story.
It always made Dad sick to see a boy cry. He said that all the time. He grabbed up the bottle from the table and went out to get drunk by himself on the back porch, like he did when he was really mad, muttering and swearing. (11.36)
Part of why Karl becomes an alcoholic is because, whether they mean to or not, his parents push it on him. For one thing, his dad leads a double life as the mayor by day and a raging drunkard by night. If getting drunk is his dad's defense mechanism for when the hooey hits the fan, it has to have rubbed off on his kid.
I didn't have much body weight then, and I'd had a bunch of drinks in less than an hour. So I was real drunk, which at least made the time pass faster; I sat on one end of the couch and watched a lady I didn't know set down her cigarette onto the carpet and grind it out with her boot heel. I wished all these people would go home and that Mom would come back from the bedroom, where she'd gone with Neil. (14.26)
Let's not blame everything on dad, though. After all, Karl's mom is the one who threw a party and invited Karl to come drink with everyone.
Next morning I woke up on the couch. Everyone was gone except Neil, who was in the bedroom with my mother. I felt like I had been poisoned: head aching, sick to my stomach, sore in every muscle. I puked in the toilet, which helped, except that I realized I might have been the most accurate, but I sure hadn't been first. (14.29)
Karl's mom not only hardcore broke the law by giving her kid alcohol, but his raging hangover is a result of her poor judgment. Welcome to the world of Brave New Beth, where nobody is safe.
St. Iggy's was pretty much the place for AA meetings, that or private homes, because the Catholics didn't have anything against smoking or coffee, and AA meetings were generally held in a blue cloud with everyone drinking a gallon of coffee. Dick always said it just showed that we were all addicts, and all we'd done was change what we were addicted to. (20.5)
This is a pretty interesting observation. Do you agree that we just switch out addictions, trading one vice for another? Either way, you have to feel bad for these guys—with no smartphones or Facebook or reruns of Lost, their addiction options are pretty limited.
"You said you will have one day," I said, calculating, "but you met my mother on Thursday night—"
"And then got so chickenshit-scared that I got drunk after work on Friday and didn't wake up till ten A.M. Saturday. Scared she'd turn me down, scared I'd get there and she would have forgotten, mostly just scared. If there was ever a good reason to stop drinking it's having done something that stupid." (22.58-59)
Bill is a good example of what alcohol does to people—it makes you scared of facing life, which just makes you drink more. Little does Bill know that his decision to get drunk rather than go to Put-in-Bay with Beth actually causes her to get drunk as well.
"I'm going to a meeting this evening, and if I stay dry till tomorrow morning, I'm back to one day of sobriety."
"I've got eighty-two days," I said. "The first one's the hard one, and then the rest are hard, too." (22.55-56)
There's something so sad about Karl having to advise his mom's boyfriend about kicking his alcohol addiction. It kind of goes along with the fact that even though the Madmen are the ones that are deemed to need therapy, they still generally have it more together than the adults in their lives.
"Coach," I said, "my parents were screwed-up people who drank together a lot […] Mom and Dad had drunk fights and drunk make-ups and drunk sex, and I was scared to death a lot of the time. They tucked me in when they were drunk, and I got myself cereal while they sat at the breakfast table holding their heads and groaning about their hangovers. They loved me and they fought each other and they did stupid things." (26.102)
So, what does all this boil down to? At the end of the day, alcohol has been a part of Karl's life since he was a little kid. Ugh, right? In this way, alcohol is the cause of all the problems Karl faces—it probably played a role in killing his dad, it's wrecked his mom, and ultimately, both of them tried to take Karl down with them, too.
He got up and did the "I'm Dick and I'm an alcoholic" business you start off with, and then laid it out. Fifteen years ago, over in Joffrey, Indiana, he'd drunk himself out of a good job and a family, and now he had a couple of kids who were almost grown and hated him and would never speak to him, and he cooked at Philbin's, and he wished he had a do-over on life. (20.10)
In a way, being around all of the AA guys has to fuel Karl's ambitions to not just kick the booze but get out of Lightsburg altogether. Dick, Gratz, Philbin, Browning, and all of these other old dudes he hangs with all have one thing in common—they have vices and they never left town.
I kept telling myself to calm down, but I was still so angry, at Harris and Tierden, of course, and at Browning for having stopped me, and most of all at Mom, for having put me in this kind of horrible position where this dirty-minded old prejudiced sack of shit was trying to find a nice way to say Some of us noticed your mom is a crazy drunken slut. (21.31)
The thing that has to really suck about having alcoholic parents in a town like Lightsburg is that everyone knows it's going on and they'll talk about it with pretty much everybody—except you, that is. What's interesting is that even though Karl knows what these people are saying about his mom is true, he still doesn't like them talking about her.
I knew it was dangerous to get all dumb and sentimental. And yet all the same, right when I was about to sign up for my senior year classes, I tried to really celebrate Mom's birthday, instead of just giving her the money to get drunk, high, and laid, like I had the year before. This time, I told her, she was going to be just slightly spoiled. (2.3)
Karl kind of knows that his plans for his mom's birthday are going to turn out badly before they even get started. But, although he knows his mom is a walking disaster waiting to happen, he loves her enough to do it anyway. Would he have still taken her for pizza if he'd known it would land him in Gratz's class? Maybe not.
When I went back to the shed to return the spade and posthole digger, I picked up one of my "headstones"—a big plug of Readi-Mix poured into a plastic milk jug bottom. I carried it out, turned it over onto the grave, and with a Sharpie marker, I wrote, SUNFLOWER SHOEMAKER, 9/5/73, GOOD KITTY RIP on the plastic top. (7.59)
It probably won't come as a shock to you to hear that Karl doesn't exactly like his mom's cats. And yet, when one dies or gets mauled by a raccoon, he still faithfully buries it and marks its grave.
"Bethie's sorry, preciouses, Bethie is, please come out." O Mighty Couch, I Bring You the Broom of Righteousness, Yield Up Your Cats.
I guess if I was serious about my rule that you have to love any girl that cracks you up, I was stuck loving Mom. (13.72-73)
You're probably thinking that if you had to live with Karl's mom, you'd probably pull a Cruella De Vil and skin every single cat yourself and then make a coat out of the fur. We're sure this is how Karl feels, too, except that every once in a while, he makes these comments that show he really does love his mom. We do have to admit that she's funny. Extremely insane, yes, but funny.
"Do you hate your mom?"
"Sometimes. I try not to. I mean it's not like I can trade her in and get another one." I shrugged. "I guess I can feel sorry for her. She just wants people to like her and think she's cool. I guess I can't really hate her." (15.12-13)
Tales of the Madman Underground is all about Karl realizing that he doesn't need to be normal in order to be happy. Perhaps he says this because he recognizes that he can't fault his mom for wanting the same acceptance and normalcy that he does.
We'd each finished about half the cup when Browning said, "Karl, I saw you moving like you were going to kill that boy when he said those things about your mother."
"Well," I said, "she's my mom. And he's an asshole. Mom has a lot of problems. I'm not saying she doesn't, she's a mess, but she's my mom." (21.30-31)
We've already talked about the Madmen's crazy loyalty to their families, no matter how bad the circumstances are, but Karl proves himself to be just like them when he defends his mom even though she's really indefensible. What it comes down to is that he can't stand people talking smack about his mom, even if what they say about her is true.
There was a presentation Don gave once at the AA meeting about life decisions. He said to imagine all the bad parts, and then ask if you'd pay that much, have all the bad parts on purpose, to have the good parts.
How many times would I wash my sheets while dead exhausted, to have this big hairy idiot purring and loving me? (23.29-30)
No matter how badly Karl wants to lose his virginity to Darla—and believe us, he wants it pretty bad—his compassion for Hairball ultimately overcomes his teenage hormonal rush. His realization that he doesn't want to kill his cat is kind of a big part of his character arc; instead of seeing only the bad parts of the situation, he sees the good that isn't a bad trade-off for it.
In the backyard, all five of the glazed and primed storm windows were lying in the wet grass, some of their shattered panes knocked all the way out, littering the yard with hundreds of bright glints in the sun.
"You like to be barefoot out here," I said. "This is really stupid." (23.105-106)
So, we just watched Karl (with assistance from Wonderful Bill) re-glaze all of those stupid windows only hours before, only to have Beth smash them all in a fit of whatever. Karl would be totally justified in snapping at her over this, but all he says is that she likes to go barefoot and now she can't. While he could have freaked out on her, he shows mercy on her instead.
I turned over the Madmen in my mind; it was the old, old problem, would Squid be better off without the kids who depended on him? If people knew the truth about what Mr. Knauss did in his rages, and Paul and Kimmie were fostered out somewhere, taken away from the town where they at least had some friends and support … did I want to have that kind of power over my friends' lives? Hadn't I always had it anyway? (26.94)
Hang on, Shmoopers. This is probably the hairiest quote in this whole section because it really messes with our definition of compassion. The question Karl and the rest of his friends deal with is what the more loving act would be—to tell someone what's going on in each other's houses, or to let things go on the way they are. This, though, is the first time Karl starts to rethink his answer to this question.
Okay, here's the worst part. I don't remember ever talking about it, but Squid knew about the rabbit. I could see that in his eyes. He never said a word, he just knew. But Squid forgave me. Really forgave me, I mean, all the way to trusting me and accepting me as his friend, and I would swear I didn't have a more loyal friend from then on. (4.64)
What about you? Would you be able to forgive a friend for—gosh, we don't even want to say it—hurting your pet? We'd say that Squid is able to forgive Karl because between going to his mom's funeral and standing up for him in therapy, Karl has more than proved his trustworthiness.
I went into her bedroom, grabbed the coverlet off the bed, and put it over her. I decided she'd be more comfortable without the boots and pulled those off her as well. She whimpered a little and snuggled into the coverlet. "I'm going to move the clock out here," I said, "and set it for eight thirty." (10.15)
Beth is about as useless as parents come, and yet instead of leaving her to suffer, Karl consistently tends to herhere, taking care of her as she passes out drunk. That's some serious compassion.
Bonny was nodding, too. "Marston and Emerson and all them are either going to be all concerned about the develop -ment of those poor misguided boys, or they're going to want Cheryl to express her feelings. Either way Harris and Tierden get all the attention they want. There might be seminars and mandatory meetings and all of that shit till doomsday, but those assholes won't feel a bit of fear or pain about this."
"Unless we make them," I said. (9.28-29)
The Madmen are kind of like the mob—if you screw with them, they'll come after you full force. In this case, Harris and Tierden feel their wrath big time. Nothing like getting whipped out of your car while you're doing drugs and thinking it's the cops.
She laughed. "So that's what the Madmen do? Protect each other like that?"
"No. I wish it was. Usually we can't do a fucking thing for each other, come to admit it. We're a little group of mental-case high school students, not the fuckin' X-Men, you know? But we know each others' stories, and we do try to watch each other's backs, when we can." (9.91-92)
Here's a conversation between Karl and Marti. Here's a good question: if the Madmen really were the X-Men, which characters would they be? We're betting on Karl as Beast.
"So that's why you said that keeping friends is hard. What a jackass." Marti pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "Maybe I'm just weird but I don't think you should throw away great friends just to sit around all year singing, I'm-normal-I'm-normal-I'm-normal to yourself. Your friends are not like a … a hairstyle or something."
I felt small, petty, and creepy. (9.113-114)
Ooh, you just got burned by Marti. Something tells us that getting burned by Marti really stinks. Either way, we think Karl deserves it. His "be normal" plan is ridiculous and borderline traitorous to his friends.
See, the thing was, Gratz was sort of right. Usually, if you picked a fight with one Madman, you picked a fight with all of us. (12.115)
Maybe Karl's X-Men analogy isn't that far off. Mess with one Madman, and the rest of them swarm. Now, that's loyalty, folks.
So here I was, the Lone Madman. All eyes were on him as the town rode away, and he sat there on his great white chicken. My work here is done. I'm needed wherever there's another friend to betray, another butt to lick, wherever the people cry out for conformity. (15.143)
You might not get what Karl is doing here, but this speech is a parody of Lone Ranger dialogue from the original series. He's literally mocking himself for betraying his friends and not walking out with the rest of the Madman crew in Gratz's class.
"The Madman Underground is all about how much everybody needs each other, and hauling my ass out of here is all about not needing anybody. And the Madman Underground is all about telling your story to people who already heard it and like you anyway, and I want to live someplace where I can have my story, not just some things that happened to me." (20.42)
Karl fortunately comes to the realization that he's never going to be normal, and since that's the case, he might as well keep his friends and the unique yet bizarre situation they have.
With Danny walking just behind us, I was reminded how big he was, and how tiny Cheryl was; it made me feel safe to have him standing over me and it made me feel like her protector to be standing next to her, and just then I didn't give a shit that a normal guy wouldn't be with the Madmen. Normal is still important, I'm still going to be normal, but normal isn't everything. It was my new idea. (3.55)
We may see Karl dead set on being normal from the opening of the book, but it's kind of glorious to see him have these moments where he tries to compromise and have it all. Fact is, he can't be "normal" and still be loyal to his friends.
None of us ever narked, because we knew it wouldn't help. I mean, what was I going to do, have them take my mom away, lose our house, lose everything? What would Cheryl do if they arrested her grandfather and her parents threw her and Samantha out of the house? And could anyone expect Squid to send his dad back to prison? I mean, yeah. He sure as shit deserved it. But it was his dad. (3.89)
Jeez, is this a bizarre-o paradox or what? Imagine having your parents put you in a compromising position and not being able to tell anyone out of fear of having your life totally uprooted. These kids' loyalty to their families, even in the midst of suffering, is an aspect of this book that we're sure readers have trouble wrapping their minds around.
I really remembered how much it helped to have Paul there standing next to me. Maybe because Mom was being so weird and quiet, maybe because everyone was just walking up to me and saying, "I'm sorry," and then walking away like they were afraid I might talk, maybe just because it was a friend who was there for me. After the graveside service he touched my shoulder and said he'd come by the next day. When he did, he just sat with me all day, not talking, which for Paul was like not breathing. (4.41)
Paul and Karl's friendship began with their dads' own friendship, so it seems only fitting that he would be the one standing at Karl's side at his dad's funeral. After growing up with two alcoholic parents, then briefly getting his dad back only to lose him, Karl finds that his best friend's loyalty helps him cope with an impossible situation.
I had Paul's example. I had scared Harris and Tierden into not being shitheads. I felt like I was committed but hadn't yet done enough. So the afternoon of Squid's mom's funeral, I slipped out of the junior high, ran home, grabbed my jacket and a tie, and went over to St. Ignatius's Church […] After the service, since I wasn't going to go out to the graveyard, I came up to Squid and touched his elbow and said, "I'm sorry." (4.49, 51)
There's no denying the fact that Karl should not have killed Squid's rabbit. But, Paul's loyalty provides Karl with an "example" of how to mend bridges with Squid by supporting him during the loss of his mother.
They were both grinning like this was the funniest shit in the world, and went on into tradition jokes about the sex lives of people who were mostly dead now. They'd talk about a time when some guy and girl got caught making out on the hayride, and then they'd suddenly be talking about how nice his funeral was, like fifty years later, or about how her family had to put her away because she couldn't take care of herself, and like that. (10.56)
Um, creepy. Or is it? Put yourself in Browning's and Rose's shoes—when you're in your 80s and most of your friends are dead, talking about the past as well as your dead friends' funerals probably becomes pretty normal.
I wanted to be around Dad all the time. I always begged to go to the council meetings with him, where I'd sit in the back and color or do the little bit of homework I had. I just liked hearing his voice; ever since kindergarten it had been a pleasant drone while he ran through all the stuff that needed to get done and asked who was doing it. (11.5)
Karl's dad wasn't perfect, but like every other boy his age, young Karl idolized him—even if it meant going to council meetings to deal with local politics. Now, that's love.
Mom and Dad started in yelling at each other about it, at the top of their lungs, the usual You-fucked-it-up/No-you-fucked-it-up thing they did whenever anything went wrong. It went on for awhile. I just sat at the table and thought about poor Dad not getting his cake, and how I had been looking forward to it, too, and it was all very sad. (11.20)
Karl shares a lot of memories about his past, and while there's some nice stuff about going to council meetings with his dad and getting ice cream afterward, most of it looks more like this—lots of alcohol, lots of throwing stuff. And, when your childhood looks like that, you're bound to have problems in high school.
Thinking about all that now, riding in Browning's hearse, I had about worked myself into hating the whole world. Old people in particular. Why couldn't things just be wrong, and let it go at that? Lots of unfair stuff happened all the time. Lots of things that weren't right happened. (12.1)
Riding in Browning's hearse gets Karl thinking about the time he wanted to be a Communist, and thinking about his dad's anger over the issue gets his mind on the subject of hating old people for being backward. Not only is he hating his own past but whatever past experiences led the older generation to develop the attitudes they have. Whoa. That's a mind-bender.
For some reason tonight while I was cleaning out McDonald's, I kept thinking about that first party, which always got me what Mom called "all full of angry energy," so I burned that energy on work and got done even faster than usual. (14.42)
This is another one of those Karl moments we're sure you can relate to. Ever work yourself into being all upset about something that happened in the past and then have to go do something to get rid of all that energy, like work out or listen to metal? That's what's going on here. Karl may have a few happy memories from his past, but most of it is just pent-up rage.
I just stood there, so confused I wanted to slap myself. My pathetic little savings account had been home to my birthday money; my first paycheck from my paper route […] I felt like I remembered every deposit there had ever been, and the much less frequent withdrawals. It was childish of me to feel that it wouldn't be the same when she put the money back, like a little kid worrying about having the exact same dollar bill Grandpa gave him. (14.21-22)
In spite of the fact that his childhood really seems to have stunk like a skunk, Karl still has some memories he's attached to, and being a kid who was good with money seems to be one of them. Probably because his bank account was one area of his life he always had control over—and then his mom blazed in and messed that up, too.
I guess if there was really a low spot in my life it wasn't so much when Dad died as when Mom threw that party. It was the start of booze and cats, and the point where I stopped being able to keep the house all the way nice. Also although by that time, my old Mom was mostly gone, replaced by Flying Saucer Lady, Beth with the Boots, or Neil's Old Lady, somehow that party was like the wake for the mother I'd grown up with. (14.1)
Losing a parent to cancer is pretty bad, but having your mom turn into a drunken crazy cat lady only makes it worse. Karl watches as the mom he grew up with dissolves into Beth—and gradually loses control of his life as a result.
She opened the waffle iron and dumped out two perfect waffles. "How do you know when they're ready?" I asked.
She grinned. "Ancient secret, Tiger Sweetie. You get married very young. You get a waffle iron as a wedding present and you have a husband that you think the sun rises on, and very shortly after a little boy that you think it rises and sets on, and they both love waffles. Then you make about ten thousand burned waffles—and about ten thousand half raw ones—while your husband gamely eats them, and your little boy doesn't care." (19.32-33)
"Cheryl is always saying to remember Dad liked my company and did spend all that time with me. Squid tells me how lucky I was to have a great dad for that long. One night for like four hours Darla kept telling me that it didn't matter whether he got sober and then realized he loved me, or he realized he loved me and then got sober, she said either way my dad loved me and I ought to hang on to that with both hands." (26.111)
As memorable as his dad's last days were, Karl still struggles with his dad's actual motivations for kicking alcohol—specifically, whether he did it for himself or because he loved Karl and wanted to do it for him. As he processes the past with the Madmen and finally Gratz, he comes to realize that it doesn't really matter; the point is that he had a real dad for longer than most of his friends did.
"While he was dying, I was around Dad all the time. He showed me how to fix everything around the house […] all that stuff he'd been good at once, and was good at again now that he wasn't drinking. We'd do stuff all day and he'd add it to that list that—the list that used to be on my wall, and then we'd sit and watch old stupid movies together. He used to do that when he was drunk with Mom, but now he did it with me. He was dying, but life was better than it ever had been. I loved that." (26.104-105)
Dang. This is probably the saddest passage in a book that's packed with a whole lot of sad—the happiest time of Karl's life was when his dad was dying. Really, it seems like that was the closest he came to living anything that resembled a normal life … and losing a parent is about as abnormal as it gets.
Cheryl and her sister got punished if they "disrespected" the old troll.
"Well, that all sucks the big one," I said.
"Yeah." She was looking down at her desk. (3.11-13)
Cheryl's parents may physically be there, but emotionally, they've completed abandoned their daughters. To them, Bad Grandpa's word takes precedence over their own kids'—even if he's sexually abusing them.
[Bonny's] parents had an import shop up in Toledo. They'd go on long trips to buy stuff for it, but the shop only made about enough to pay for those trips […] Meanwhile, Bonny had to have money for groceries, clothes for her younger sister and two brothers, the house payment, and all that. She said her parents never asked where she got it, didn't even seem to be aware that most of the time when they were away they weren't sending any money. (3.58)
Seriously, who goes on trips to buy foreign junk and forgets to send their kids money? We seriously have to question Bonny's parents' motives—do they really want to own a business? Or are they just in it for the lifestyle?
I'd seen the marks on Squid's back in the gym class showers; I'd helped him out with a place for him and his two younger sibs to sleep; there had been a couple of sacks of groceries I'd gotten for them—maybe more than a couple, come to admit it. But tempting as it was, I'd never ratted out old Cabrillo. (3.88)
Not only is Squid the victim of physical abuse, but he's also the sole provider for his younger siblings. A lot of the Madmen seem to have situations that are based on neglect, with their parents only giving them attention when they want to beat up on them or talk about how badly they've disappointed the family.
She blew a cloud of cigarette smoke into my room, and sighed. "I guess it's pretty weird that you're being all adult and I'm being the kid and wanting my freedom." (8.39)
Karl's mom may not be abusing or neglecting him in the same way his friends' parents are, but the roles in their family are reversed to a perverse degree. Karl is the parent and the provider, while Beth is the child. That said, she's certainly abandoning her duties as a mother.
[Marti had] never been anywhere long enough to have many friends, and her father hadn't really approved of her having the few she sometimes had. She'd gotten locked out a lot but had always spent the night sleeping in her car or at a diner. She couldn't remember a single interesting thing that had ever happened to her. (9.102)
Karl and Marti probably bond because both his mom and her dad have completely misplaced the idea of their children being able to have their own identities. While Karl is inhibited by his mom's drinking and stealing, Marti's dad degrades her for not being as smart as he expects her to be. Neither seems to realize that both of their children are going above and beyond to just survive.
"Laughing at everything is probably a good idea, considering what everything is like." (12.23)
Marti's words of wisdom have to do with the dark, perverse humor that the Madmen use to respond to the situations in their lives—not because they're deliberately trying to be inappropriate but because their lives are so bad that the only reaction is to laugh.
Twice in two days. I could lose a month's worth every three months or so, like I had been since freshman year, but I couldn't fucking lose it every fucking two fucking days […] She couldn't keep doing this.
But if I could stop her I'd already have stopped her.
How could she steal that much of my fucking life? (13.82-84)
We're just going to come out and say it: We here at Shmoop have reviewed the situation and frankly, we think Karl has been outstandingly patient with his mom given all he has to put up with. We can't really condone fits of profanity, but since this is a novel and Karl is a fictional character, we totally get why he ends up at this point.
Huck would have been a Madman, for sure, if he'd gone to our school, I can tell you that. His dad was a drunk who was beating him, and kidnapped him, and threatened to kill him, and everybody in that town knew what was happening—the only people he could trust were other kids. And them not very much. (16.158)
If there's one thing John Barnes does an awesome job of in this book, it's showing how literature is immortal. One hundred years after its publication, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still more than relevant to Karl's life. Which makes us ask—as you're reading this novel that takes place in the past, do the events still feel relevant to you?
"Now and then, when he's been fighting with his dad and is really strung out, Paul goes up on the gay stroll in Toledo. Usually it happens after Paul's dad gets on his ass for not being all manly and stuff. Like whenever Paul gets a lot of attention, say, when he has a big part in a play, or a solo in a choir concert, or when it's a home game and he's the drum major for the halftime show, Mr. Knauss catches Paul afterward and tells him he's embarrassed the whole family by being Mister Big Public Screaming Faggot, and yells at Paul, and usually tells him to never come home and locks him out that night." (17.30)
Being a gay teenager in the early 1970s was way different than it is now. While Paul's dad is clearly abandoning his son, his behavior was probably par for the course for parents of teens who identified as gay at the time. Really, it's too bad Paul couldn't have been around in the 2010s instead of the 1970s. With his musical abilities, he would have fit right in on Glee.
I still couldn't quite get used to the idea that someone else knew, I mean besides my mother, and Neil, and her drunk asshole friends, I mean. Someone that wasn't throwing it in my face, or telling me to stop thinking I was better than they were.
Someone that said they were going to try to do something.
That was the really hard idea to latch onto. (26.42-44)
Dang. This is probably the saddest line in the whole book. We've seen Karl battle for the past five days and almost four years with his mom's nutso-drunken-cat-lady-ness while every adult in town turns a blind eye. Now, someone's finally stepping up to the plate.
Paul and me had been best friends since we shared a playpen—our dads had been best friends for like five years before we were born. We were like two pieces of the same guy; I got the muscles and the common sense, he got the talent and the face. I told Paul that once, and like right then, not even a second for breath, he said, "How do you know we're not two parts of the same ugly, puny, untalented dork?" (1.38)
Paul and Karl's bizarre, lifelong friendship is a huge part of the book, both in showing how they deal with their mutual family problems and how their relationship changes as time passes and social politics invade their bond. Since all of this stuff fails to mess up their friendship (at least permanently), maybe they really are part of the same dork.
I smiled back for all I was worth. I couldn't stand to think how lonely the guy was feeling. Christ, if that wasn't a lesson—lose your rabbit and other kids swarm all over you, lose your mom and you're invisible—what a thing to know about your friends. I wanted to be a friend for him worse than I'd ever wanted anything. (4.61)
This is a pretty weird way to be feeling about a kid whose pet bunny you just whacked Godfather-style, but it's obvious that Karl learns an important lesson from the Squid Cabrillo affair. Mainly, the losses of his dad and Squid's mom make them both understand how valuable friendship is, especially in crisis and loss.
"Karl, when you get old, the only thing you got left is your friends. Rose'n'me's the only people that remember some of that stuff we were joking about. Once there's only one of us, which praise the Lord if he's willing won't be for a long time yet, it'll be like all that stuff never happened […] So if you don't do anything else, you have to stick up for your friends." (10.77)
Mr. Browning might be kind of a pervert, but boy does he speak the truth here. Little does he know that he's not just spouting sentimental advice—he's speaking directly to Karl's bind over whether or not to leave the Madmen. To him, Mr. Browning is really giving him a warning: he can go his own way and die alone, or hang onto his friends with all he's got.
It wasn't being much of a day but I'd had worse. I figured if I took care of all my other friendships, and just did what I needed to do, I could get it down to aching about Paul maybe once every other breath. (16.87)
So, Karl's battle with Paul in the hallway was pretty bad. But what's worse than punching someone in the gut and calling him an offensive slur related to his sexuality is that the victim has been his best friend since they were born. While the shame of what he did and said is getting to him, the ache really comes from putting his oldest friendship in jeopardy.
And being the Tonto I always was, here I was again: Tonto to Paul, who was artistic and beautiful; Tonto to Cheryl, who was off to save the beautiful artist; Tonto to my crazy mom; probably Tonto to old Browning—I was the eternal sidekick. (17.65)
For your generation, The Lone Ranger looks a lot like this, Johnny Depp included. But to Karl and the Madmen, it would have looked more like this. Not quite as, um, colorful but still classic. Either way, Karl would probably rather be the Lone Ranger, aka the hero, but instead he's stuck being the sidekick.
"Remember when Dennis died?" […]
"Yeah," she said. "You and me drove all over hell with Paul while he cried, and then after he fell asleep, you and me sat up all night on the hood of this car, watching waves on Lake Erie. You mean, like, we share that and we can trust each other?" (18.62-63)
This conversation between Karl and Cheryl shows that for the Madmen, friendship is mostly based on trust. Think about it—would you feel comfortable telling your friends about the darkest, most vulnerable part of your life? Unless you have a friend you put a lot of faith in, our guess is probably not. Yet the Madmen are thrust into a group that requires them to share these things with each other, and they form a bond that's centered around knowing each other's dirt.
I said, "Look, I know they're screwed up, but they're the friends I have. And I'm so pissed that I'd like to kill Paul, but if any shithead lays a finger on him I'd be there with the bat, like Squid says, to explain 'don't be an asshole' in terms anyone can understand. It might be fucking crazy—in fact I know it—but those guys are pretty much all the family I want to admit to. Even Paul. Especially Paul." (20.41)
This is a big leap to make for a guy who was plotting to abandon the Madmen in the very opening sentences of this book. Regardless of that, Karl learns to accept not only his station in the hierarchy of high school life but also to accept his friends for who they are.
"It was just kind of an idea we came up with after you and Cheryl left, at Denny's, last night," Bonny said. "Marti said everybody really knows who the therapy kids are anyway. I mean we know who's in the other groups, you know? And we all get teased sometimes, and Gratz practically announces it in class every other day. So Marti said, why not just be friends in public? So here we are." (21.73)
The Madmen have a bond that's based on more solid trust than probably any group of friends in their school—and yet they've been embarrassed to associate with each other until now. It's Marti's defiance of her critics, her parents, and her circumstances that inspires them to stop the charade.
"I hope this doesn't sound too weird, but when Gratz yelled at me, I felt good, because I knew it was going to be Madman fucking legend, the maddest tale of the Madmen ever, all of us walking out on Gratz. Even Darla did, you know?" (21.94)
A huge part of the Madman Underground is their mythology—Paul, like Darla, Squid, and the rest of the gang, wants to have a good story, and rebelling once and for all against Gratz's abuse is the chance to get what he wants.
"Marti sure joined the group in a hurry," Paul said. "Already hiding other Madmen, already been locked out herself, it's like she's always been here."
"She's really changed the group," I agreed. "But I guess it needed changing. I kind of like her knack for upsetting things." (21.114-115)
We talk about this in the "Characters" section in some detail, but Marti's appearance in the Madman Underground is really what sets this whole thing in motion. Because of her, Karl rethinks his plan to become normal and the Madmen decide to come out of hiding and be friends in public. Not only that, but she becomes a real friend to Karl during the period when things are still on the rocks with Paul.