Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations
Winner: Printz Honor 2010

This book is 532 pages long and it covers one week in 1973. Harry Potter books that are almost twice that length cover an entire school year. Of course, the Harry Potter books skip over vast periods of time in the course of the school year, whereas almost every minute of every day is accounted for here.

In other words, this is a rather detailed book.

Tales of the Madman Underground starts on September 5, 1973, the first day of Karl Shoemaker's senior year of high school and the start of Operation Be Fucking Normal. A tall order for someone who's been in therapy since middle school thanks to his dad's death from cancer and his mom's reputation as a drunken slut.

But Karl has a plan for senior year: if he can be normal one day at a time (a lesson learned from his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings), he can last long enough into the semester to make sure none of his teachers recommend he return to therapy.

But being normal is harder than it looks. After all, if you've never been normal, how do you know what you're supposed to do? Should he continue to hang out with all of his old friends, his fellow therapy members that make up the so-called Madman Underground? Or should he turn his back on all of them, including his best friend since forever? Matters are complicated by the appearance of Marti, a new girl with frizzy hair and no boobs - definitely not the sort of girl a "normal" guy would be hanging out with.

Plus there are some parts of Karl's life that are decidedly not normal, like working five jobs in order to ensure he and his mom can continue to eat. And having to hide that money in various stashes around the house so his mom can't find it and use it to go on a booze and pot bender while looking for her next hook up.

Karl has to balance home and friends, pushy and obnoxious teachers, small town and internal prejudices. All in his quest to be fucking normal.

This book was a little tough to get into, because I kept waiting for something to happen. Nothing major ever does, so if you're looking for a mind-bending thriller, look elsewhere. This is very much a week-in-the-life book - it doesn't even appear to be an out of the ordinary week, aside from Karl's attempts to be "normal" and the introduction of new-girl Marti to the small town school. Less than half way through however I began to enjoy the ride for what it was, liking this glimpse into the past.

Barnes deals deftly with a lot of the social inequity of the time. Casual racism and homophobia run rampant in this small Ohio town, even among friends. This isn't the wild and crazy and totally open 70s we often think about, but small town 70s where people looked upon the changes going on in the wider world with suspicion. Karl's mother is a total hippie in some ways, calling Karl a "special child of the universe" and saying that the age of Aquarius truly is coming upon them, but it's also clear most of the town thinks she's a nut.

I would imagine it might be hard for younger readers to comprehend the large amount of casual abuse in this story - lots of kids are regularly beaten by their parents or sexually abused by family members or locked out of their houses, and "everyone" knows about these incidents but no one really tries to stop them. They just throw the victims in therapy and call it good. The only reason I could buy it is Lightsburg, Ohio doesn't sound too different from the town my parents grew up in and Mom used to tell me some sad stories about kids showing up in school with black eyes and broken arms and everyone would know it was the mom or dad hitting the kid, but it was considered a private family issue. So kudos to Barnes for capturing a lot of the small but major tragedies of the time.

I couldn't tell you exactly why this was a Printz honor book. It's certainly very good, but I don't think I'm the best judge of what makes a Printz-worthy book. I tried reading Jellicoe Road after it won last year, and couldn't even get a third of the way through it. I can definitely, however, see this appealing to adult readers of YA, as the style feels very much like adult literary fiction. At least the little adult literary fiction I've read - have to admit, my reading tastes are definitely stalled at where they were when I was 16.

On the jacket copy: I have no idea why the jacket is designed with big old censor bars. It kind of implies the book is going to be about censorship in some way. There's a brief point about a teacher refusing to censor his teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (so long as you're quoting the book he sees no problem with the racial slurs - it's when you call another person that outside of a literary context that it becomes a problem). So the gratuitous and obvious censoring of the jacket copy comes a little bit out of nowhere.


Lee Wind said...

really interesting review. I totally get what you mean about letting a book be its own thing and settling in for the ride of it - but I don't generally have the kind of patience you displayed! Thanks for sharing your take on it!

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this one yet - it was another completely surprise on the Printz list for me this year. It just looks so..blah, to me. I hope to get to it eventually, though.

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