Study Guide

Tales of the Madman Underground Themes

By John Barnes

  • Abandonment

    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.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Maybe you come from a background of neglect and abuse. We hope you don't. But, regardless of your relationship with your family, which of the Madmen did you most identify with? Why?
    2. What are Beth's motivations for behaving the way she does toward her son? How did she end up the way she is?
    3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn plays a huge role in Karl's story. Why does Karl identify so much with Huck's story?
    4. If you were in Karl's position, what would you say to his mother?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Friendship

    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.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What about Karl and Paul makes them such good friends? How do their personalities complement each other?
    2. What forms the basis of the Madmen's bond? Where does their extremely wide base of trust come from?
    3. Karl uses the analogy of being Tonto to Paul's Lone Ranger. What does he mean by this analogy? How does the TV show provide a metaphor for how he relates to his friends?
    4. Karl and Squid have an extremely interesting story about how their friendship began. What does that experience say about them as characters, as well as the Madmen in general?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Loyalty

    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.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. The Madmen's home lives seriously stink—and yet they won't tell another adult or ask anyone outside of their group for help. Why is it better for them to continue living in these situations than get help? Is it better? Do you think they do the right thing by not telling anyone?
    2. What do you think of Karl's plan to be an informant for Gratz, which they discuss at the end?
    3. The main conflict Karl faces is whether to abandon the group to be "normal" or continue his Madman existence. How do the events of the five days in the story move him toward a decision, and why?
    4. What's the deal with Squid and Karl? What inspires their loyalty to each other in spite of Karl's bunny-murder episode?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    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.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. It seems like just about everyone in Lightsburg is a drunk. What is it about the town that promotes a culture of alcoholism?
    2. What factors lead Karl to become an alcoholic? What factors lead him to quit?
    3. How does alcohol inhibit the lives of the people in the book it affects?
    4. What causes the characters in the book to drink? What seem to be their triggers for getting drunk?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Identity

    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.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does Karl want to be normal so badly? What is at stake for him with this decision?
    2. Why does Beth's husband's death thrust her into a full-on identity meltdown? Why does she think making herself into a different person will solve her problems?
    3. Could Karl have succeeded with Operation Be Normal even if he wanted to? Why or why not?
    4. Imagine that Karl lived in the present day instead of 1973. Make a playlist of modern-day songs you think he would identify with.

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Memory and the Past

    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.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. How does Karl's past tie into his overwhelming desire to be normal?
    2. What is it about Beth's own past that makes her snap and become a crazy hippie cat lady? What details does she share that reveal this?
    3. What are Karl's most significant memories of his past? What do they reveal about his character?
    4. Tales of the Madman Underground weaves back and forth between stories of Karl's past and present. How does this structure affect the way you read the book?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Society and Class

    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.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why do you think Cheryl, Bonny, and Danny are able to so deftly navigate between being popular and being in the Madman Underground?
    2. How has Karl's dad's status in the community affected his son's status at school?
    3. What does the social hierarchy of Lightsburg High say about what it's like to be a kid with serious problems at their school?
    4. How do the Lightsburg faculty members seem to deal with students' problems and social issues?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Madness

    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.

    Questions About Madness

    1. We hear a lot about madness in this book as it applies to the teenage characters, but what about the adults? Pick an adult character and analyze the role of madness in his or her life.
    2. What are the problems with how Lightsburg's therapy program is set up? What does Karl identify as the biggest issues?
    3. What is Karl's attitude toward therapy? How does it differ from other interactions he has with authority figures, such as working for Philbin or Mr. Browning or attending AA meetings? Do some research about teenagers and mental illness both in 1973 and in the present day. What issues do teens deal with that are the same? What is different? What techniques do schools today use to help students dealing with abuse, neglect, self-harm, and other issues of concern?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    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.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. How would you deal with Karl's mom if she were your mom? Go ahead, you can be honest. We won't judge you.
    2. Where does Karl get the strength to repeatedly forgive his mother no matter how much she wrongs him? Is this a trait he gets from one of his parents or his friends?
    3. What does Karl's experience with Hairball teach him about forgiveness?
    4. If you had a friend who was in a situation like what many of the Madmen face, how would you respond? Would you compromise your friend's trust by telling an adult, or would you keep the secret even if it meant further abuse? Why?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Family

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Karl's dad has been dead for almost four years before the action of the book begins. How is he still a presence in the book despite this? What qualities does Karl have that came from his father?
    2. Is Karl's mother aware of how out of touch with her son she is? How can you tell? Or, is she rationalizing her bad decisions so she doesn't have to think about it?
    3. Where do you see Karl and his mom going after the story ends? Has their relationship changed, or have they continued to be dysfunctional?

    Chew on This

    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.