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BOOK REVIEW

'Tales of the Madman Underground' by John Barnes

A veteran science fiction writer turns to the story of anguished Karl Shoemaker, coming of age in the turbulent 1970s.

June 27, 2009|Susan Carpenter

It isn't easy being a teen, especially if you're Karl Shoemaker, the expletive-spewing protagonist at the center of John Barnes' "Tales of the Madman Underground." By Page 5 of this darkly comic coming-of-age novel for young adults, Shoemaker has sworn as many times, disparaging the numerous cats that his hippie mom has let defile their house and his own frustrated attempts to deal with a living situation from which he desperately wants to escape.

Shoemaker has even more to swear about, which he does, of course, as he recounts the first five days of his senior year in high school. The boy whose hair clings "blandly to [his] skull like chocolate pudding running down a bowling ball" not only has to deal with the usual angst of body awkwardness, sexual awakening and social hierarchies, but also an alcoholic floozy of a mother (who steals her son's money to indulge in barfly pursuits) and his fellow members of the Madman Underground, a group of misfits corralled into a school therapy group to deal with the psychological fallout of their families' dysfunctions, which include physical abuse, molestation and neglect.

According to Shoemaker, an average Monday morning conversation goes something like this:

"So, how's the medication working out?"

"Too bad your mom got arrested again."

"Hey, aren't the new sheets on the Salvation Army bunks great?"

No wonder Shoemaker wants to flee.

Alcohol was Shoemaker's first choice for escapism -- as it is for his mom (and was for his deceased father) -- but he gave that up in favor of working. Delivering furniture and cleaning the fryers on the McDonald's graveyard shift are among the five jobs he juggles as he plots his ultimate escape -- joining the Army -- a plan his mother counters with the suggestion that he "smoke a little grass and get laid" while he's young.

Joining the Army isn't a decision that should ever be taken lightly, even more so in Vietnam-era 1973, when "Tales" takes place. It does, however, underscore the desperation of the book's main character, whose stuck-ness and resulting sarcasm are as troubled, relevant, relatable and hilarious as J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield.

Karl Shoemaker is just stuck in one place -- Lightsburg, Ohio. And he hasn't been kicked out of school, no matter how much he'd like to get away. His cynicism also gives way to optimism over the course of reading the book's 532 pages, when Shoemaker's mother -- a woman he once described as looking "like a dandelion smoking a cigarette" -- meets a decent man for a change; and when Shoemaker has a chance to leave the Madman Underground but chooses to stay because he realizes he needs the friendship provided by the group even if no one in the group is benefiting from the actual therapy.

"Tales of the Madman Underground" is the first young-adult novel from Barnes, an author who has 27 other books to his credit, most of them in the science fiction genre. Though "Tales" doesn't smack of sci-fi in the least, it's highly imaginative when it comes to language and detailed in its character development. It really gets into the mind of Karl Shoemaker, in all its delightfully messed-up glory. More "Tales" are most certainly welcome.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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