Ever feel like your parents don't "get" you? Try having parents that aren't around enough to even try. In Tales of the Madman Underground, part of being a Madman is being abused, neglected, or rejected by the people who are supposed to be taking care of you. While they all have stories to tell about the travesties going on in their homes, Karl has it pretty bad in his own right—an alcoholic mother who's trying to "find herself" by partying and stealing her son's money, all while living in a house that's been taken over by feral cats. Ultimately, though, he finds relief when someone finally decides to step in and help him solve the problem.
Tales of the Madman Underground is a 1970s update of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
It's their own experiences of vulnerability that inspire Coach Gratz, Dick, and Bill to decide something has to be done about Karl's mom.
When your parents are abusive, alcoholic, and just generally not there, your friends can be more like family than your actual family is. That's how it is for Karl and the rest of his buddies in the Madman Underground in Tales of the Madman Underground. While none of them want to be thrown into a mandatory therapy group where they have to talk about their feelings with their peers, they eventually form a bond that transcends any goals the adults in charge had for them. And, from the deaths of parents to identity crises, these kids have a lot to be there for each other for.
The administrators may mean for the therapy group to serve as a superficial way to address teens with emotional needs, but it literally saves the lives of many of the participants.
The emotional core of Tales of the Madman Underground is the testing and renewal of Paul and Karl's friendship.
The members of the Madman Underground may have some serious issues, but one thing's for sure—they're some of the most loyal fictional characters you'll come across. Throughout Tales of the Madman Underground, they have each other's backs; because they know each other's dirt, they know how to protect their own. They're also super loyal to their parents, no matter how messed up their home situation might be. Consider yourself warned—don't risk taking on one of these teens because you'll have to deal with all of them as a result. And the results can be pretty ugly. Don't believe us? Just ask Harris and Tierden.
The Madmen don't tell anyone about their own or each other's situations to avoid making a bad situation worse.
It would have been impossible for Karl to be "normal" even if he'd decided to stick with his plan.
When alcohol shows up in literature—especially young-adult literature—it's rarely a good thing. In the case of Karl and his friends, it's downright disastrous. Growing up with parents who are not only both alcoholics but also feed on each other's addiction creates an unstable and toxic environment for Karl that eventually drives him to take up the habit as well.
Tales of the Madman Underground deals with a lot of serious issues, but perhaps one of the most serious is how addicts can pass their vices on to their children, whether intentionally or not. Throughout the story, a big part of Karl's struggle is his decision to break free of alcohol and the harmful influence it has on his mother.
Drinking is a behavior that Lightsburg simultaneously endorses and shuns.
If Karl's mom had stopped drinking after his dad died, all of the family's issues would have stopped, too.
Spoiler alert: A lot of people in Tales of the Madman Underground have identity crises. Duh, of course they do—you found it in the young-adult section. For Karl and his friends, though, the typical adolescent period of identity crisis-dom is more extreme than their other fictional counterparts; along with just trying to survive at home, they're also going through the typical existential struggle of most high schoolers, asking who they are, what they want from life, and how they can change to become more of what the world wants and less of what they really are.
What's sad is that in Karl's world, it's not just the kids going through this—his mother is stuck in the middle of her own search for identity, too. A mom and a teenage son having identity problems under the same roof (with about 30 cats for company)? Now, that really stinks.
Every major character, from the Madmen to the adults to the school bullies, struggle with trying to figure out who they are amid the confusion of life in Lightsburg.
Karl's desire to be normal has more to do with getting over his father's death and less about changing his image at school.
Thanks to drunken fights, abuse, loss, and grief hitting them at a young age and continuing to haunt their lives, the characters in Tales of the Madman Underground have little choice but to deal with seriously rough memories and emotions. Karl, in particular, struggles with the loss of his parents—his dad to cancer and his mom, well, to the 1960s. Ultimately, his story is about more than just coping with social and mental pressures in the present; it's about how his past is woven into the fabric of his current problems. The past has a way of lingering in this book.
A lot of the issues Karl struggles with—including insecurity, alcoholism, and a desire to be someone different—are rooted in his parents' dysfunctional relationship.
The discursive structure of the story allows readers to get into the heads of other characters in spite of the first-person central narrator style.
High schoolthe only educational environment that's a microcosm of every personal bias, division, and special little group that has ever existed in the world. Maybe you wonder if kids back in the 1970s could really know the struggle, but the truth is, they did. Need evidence? Check out the social structure of Lightsburg High in Tales of the Madman Underground, where cheerleaders lead double lives as popular girls and Madmen and kids that rank lower on the ladder are forced to take abuse rather than defend themselves.
This is the world Karl belongs to, but is everything really the way it seems for the members of the school's intricate social castes? As John Barnes shows us, it isn't quite that easy.
Being a part of the Madman Underground is easier for people like Cheryl, Danny, and Paul, who have specific niches carved out for them in school clubs.
Although they make their stances on the subject clear by the end of the book, neither Karl nor Paul ever really want to leave the Madman Underground.
The book is called Tales of the Madman Underground, so it isn't super surprising that one of its themes is madness. Struggles of the mind are a huge part of this story. We've already talked a lot about how the Madmen's personal struggles add to the book's themes elsewhere in this section, but a major issue with madness is how the adults in the story treat the topic of mental illness and the effect of that treatment on the kids. As you'll see, the faculty who arrange the therapy group do so without a lot of logic or common sense—yet the social relationships of the students within this poorly organized operation may just save their lives.
The Madman Underground succeeds not because of the adults who organize it but because of the combination of students that make it up.
Gratz's realization of Karl's loyalty to the Madmen opens a door to him and other adults, enabling them to become more willing to get involved with helping students in need.
As you've probably noticed, there's a lot of anger, violence, and abuse in Tales of the Madman Underground. But as bad as the home lives of these kids are, there's a lot of compassion in the mix, too. Within the circle of the Madmen, the students keep each other's secrets and forgive each other's wrongs, even if dead bunnies are involved. Outside of the group though, the biggest act of forgiveness we see is Karl's unconditional love for his mother, even if she hasn't done a single thing to deserve it. The book is ultimately about Karl's journey to find the ability to appreciate the faults in others and forgive them, learning to live with the good and let go of the bad.
Responding to his mother with kindness is one way that Karl copes with his difficulties.
Ultimately, Karl and his mother are struggling with the same issue of who they are supposed to be in his father's absence.
Tales of the Madman Underground might take place in the early 1970s, but Lightsburg's families are hardly the Brady Bunch. Imagine the Brady Bunch beating each other with blunt objects and screaming obscenities in each other's faces, and you'd come a lot closer to what life for these kids is actually like. For Karl especially, whose father played the dual role of a major public figure and a drunk and then eventually died, life is no picnic. Nonetheless, he and his severely dysfunctional mother attempt to live together and overcome the loss in their lives—even if they have to fight through the garbage between them to do it.
While Karl's dad may not have been the most honorable person all the time, he taught his son respect for others and to stand up for people in need.
Tearing up the list of chores is Karl's mom's turning point for realizing how much she's harmed her son.