Monday, February 7, 2011

My latest love: Tales of the Madman Underground

In celebration of our 400th blog post, I'm going to rave about my latest young adult book obsession, Tales of the Madman Underground. This is one of those rare books that as soon as I had finished it, I turned back to the first page. I just wasn't ready to let Karl Shoemaker go! I had to tear myself away from a complete second read so I could mail my copy to my friend who teaches fiction writing...but maybe she'll send it back if I need Karl again.

Tales of the Madman Underground won John Barnes the Printz Honor in 2009 (Jellicoe Road took the Medal. What a year!). The Printz Medal is a teenage level Newbery Medal, awarded for exemplary young adult literature. In my mind, it also means you can give this book to both teens and adults - a crossover medal, if you will. And I certainly would give this book to either teens or adults. I am going to be pushing this book just like I pushed Anna and the French Kiss and Dairy Queen when I first discovered them, and still do. They are just that good.

Karl begins his senior year with "Operation Be Normal," hoping to escape his usual fate of being sent to therapy: "They might as well have tattooed CRAZY on your forehead. The next year every teacher would be watching you for the first weird thing you did - and has there ever been a kid who never does anything an adult considers weird?" (p 14). Of course, to be normal, Karl has to hide his exhaustion from four jobs, ignore taunts about his drunk pseudo-hippie mother, and most complicated of all, dissociate from his fellow therapy "Madmen." This 500 page feast covers only 5 days, but his magnetic voice, fueled as it is by anger and ferocious loyalty to the Madmen, pulls you through the many hilarious and heartbreaking tangential back stories. The plot unravels magnificently, Karl's present story line flowing into memories from childhood, middle school, or last summer, in a style that reminds me of Everything Is Illuminated and other adult titles. Occasionally I lose the narrative thread or am thrown by a few ungrammatical lines, but then Karl delivers those potent one-liners I remember from Holden Caulfield, the kind you underline and dog-ear: "Pain only matters when it happens to someone important." (p 70). Even if the writing occasionally struggles, Karl's voice carries it through. Like most teenagers, Karl is most funny and poignant when he isn't trying to be funny, so some of the dialogue clunks along while his painting of a scene rings true: "I thought how normal kids were spending their Friday nights after a game. Probably having pizza, or road drinking, or making out. Whereas I was standing on Mug Me Street in Toledo, Ohio, with a baseball bat and a purse." (p 324). I don't know about you, but I'd rather be on Mug Me Street with Karl for these 500 pages than having pizza with "normal" people.

Critics have compared this to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Catcher in the Rye, and I agree that here's a modern classic in the making. Even if this book is set a mere twenty years after Catcher in the Rye's publication, Karl is a modern Holden, bursting with anger and love, cynicism and the desire for things to be different. His language is accessible (no excess "phonies" to trip over) and his problems contemporary, even as he describes the bell bottoms of the "Christian jocks." Like Markus Zusak's I am the Messenger, Tales of the Madman Underground has that particular blend of humor and realism, in which the only way to get by is to laugh at life's painful absurdities. And for that, I would follow Karl anywhere.

"It wasn't that funny, but I laughed. There wouldn't be much laughter in the world if people didn't like each other, because there sure as shit aren't that many good jokes." (p 33).

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