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Richie's Picks: TALES OF THE  MADMAN  UNDERGROUND by John Barnes, Viking, 
June 2009, 532p., ISBN:  978-0-670-06081-8
"Living in today's complex world of the future is a little  like having 
bees live in your head.  But there they are."
-- The Firesign Theater from "I Think We're All Bozos On This  Bus"
"By noon everyone had heard that I had spent a night with  Marti in a hotel 
room and when the cops came by, with our mothers, I had asked  for time to 
get dressed.  It was also all over the school that I had  deliberately 
provoked Grantz and lived to tell of it, and that Paul had knocked  me flat.  And 
on top of that, that Spooky Darla had given me a  thermonuclear kiss in 
"No getting away from it: I was now Public Madman Number  One."
In small town Ohio, in the fall of 1973, Karl Shoemaker is  tired of the 
labels that he believes have been placed on him and his friends at  school.  
He is determined to begin his senior year of high  school (and, hopefully, 
his last year in Lightsburg) as a normal  person.  He is determined to shed 
his membership in the Madman  Underground.
Karl lives with his mother who, whenever she is not at  work, is drunk, 
stoned, and seeking out the perfect man.  His  mother maintains a mind-boggling 
population of cats in their  house and does not believe in spaying and 
neutering, controlling, or  cleaning up after them.  On top of going to high 
school, living in cat  stench, and trying to keep up with the long list of 
house maintenance tasks  that his father, before succumbing to cancer, taught 
him to  perform regularly , Karl is juggling five -- FIVE -- part time  jobs.  
The thanks his gets for all his hard work is  having to cope with his 
mother and her male acquaintances seeking out  and "borrowing" hundreds of 
dollars from the various stashes that he  has squirreled away at home since the 
time she emptied his bank account to  fund a party.  Karl maintains a journal 
containing thousands of dollars  worth of her worthless IOUs.  He plans to 
graduate high  school and join the army as a sure ticket out of Lightsburg.
How does a kid in this situation keep it  together?
The Madman Underground, of which Karl is a member, is a group  of students 
with problems at home who have -- year after year --  been pulled out of 
class on a regular schedule to participate  in group sessions with a 
never-ending succession of school  psychologists.  He and his lifelong friend Paul 
have been pulled out  ("gotten their tickets") since the pair was identified as 
having problems while  fourth graders, and it was Paul who, by time they 
got to high school,  had named the group.  As Karl explains:
"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."
As we follow Karl step by step through the course  of six days and 500+ 
pages, beginning with his hurriedly clearing the  cat crap minefield on the 
first morning of school, we come to  understand the irreplaceable, lifesaving 
role that is played by  the Madman Underground in the lives of each of its  
members.  These are kids who all have nightmarish home lives and the  only 
thing they can count on is each other.  How can Karl both  leave the group, in 
which he is so essential, and maintain  his strong friendships with each of 
the other members?  How can he,  himself, survive without them?
"When I looked at him again, he was slowly turning his head on  his scrawny 
old neck like a door hanging by one hinge and blowing in  the breeze, still 
trying to work the anger out.  '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.'" 
In a parallel to the group dynamics of the Madman Underground,  we also see 
how Alcoholics Anonymous -- which Karl has recently joined  -- plays a 
similarly essential role in the lives of many of the Lightsburg  adults Karl 
knows through work, school, and as old friends of his late  father.

I was up in the 300s when I lost count of how many times  I laughed aloud 
while reading it and, yet, it is an incredibly dark  and insightful book.  
TALES OF THE MADMAN UNDERGROUND is not  a gulp it down book: I found myself 
needing to consciously take  breaks over the course of reading it, and I've 
had to think  hard for a few days while attempting to write about  it.  
"When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way, from your first  cigarette to 
your last dying day.
When you're a Jet, if the spit hits the fan, you've got  brothers around, 
you're a family man."
-- Riff from "West Side Story"
In doing so, I keep coming back to the powerful role --  whether for good 
or for bad -- that groups play in our lives and in our  world.  Maslow spoke 
of how when one lacks a sense of belonging it can  lead to loneliness, 
anxiety, and depression.  And when it comes to  Karl and his friends, there are 
plenty of times when, if nobody's got your back,  you're in real danger.  
Long live the Madman  Underground!         

Richie  Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks _http://richiespicks.com_ ( 
Moderator, _ 
_ ( 

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