Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance 1973



Raw, raunchy tale of survival best for mature teems.

What parents need to know

Educational value

A small amount of historical data about the Vietnam War and life in the 1970s; some information about Alcoholics Anonymous.

Positive messages

Through the bleakness of this story of teens who are fending for themselves, the overriding message is about resiliency. Karl is able to survive because he is resilient, and finally because a few adults reach out to help him. Not all children are blessed with this amount of resiliency, but Karl's story could serve as hope for those who do and those who wish they did.

Positive role models

Karl is the child of an alcoholic and is also an enabler. He is a study in contradictions: good intentions, abusive behavior, explosive rage, alcoholism, loyalty to his friends, excellent work ethic, incidents of both poor and better judgment. Very few positive adult role models; two adults step up at the end to help Karl and his mother. Karl is a little too conflicted to be a good role model; this story is more about survival and perhaps, hope.


A gay teen is beaten as he cruises to pick up tricks; animals are killed and mutilated, including pet rabbits and cats; teens and children are sexually, physically and verbally abused; although most of these incidents are not graphically related, their aftereffects are. There are also many graphic depictions of teens beating other teens.


Unsafe sex by gay teen who prostitutes himself; sexual abuse; a disturbed teen girl seduces Karl, offers to have sex with him if he will kill a cat and let her watch; Karl has a very graphically described test for venereal disease including swabbing of his penis and injections into it; his drunken mother has loud and frequent sex at home with various strangers.


Constant swearing by all characters including "asshole," "bastard," "bitch," "damn," "hell," "piss," "slut," "c--ksucker," "c--t," "f----r," "motherf-----r," the "N" word, "p---y," "s--t," "t-ts."


Characters work at and frequent McDonald's and Pietro's. Some car makes from the 1970s and older are mentioned. Mentions of Sprite and Coke.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

At 17, Karl is in AA, but drank for three years. His mother is an alcoholic and uses drugs, as do most of the men she brings home from bars. Karl's friends drink and do drugs. Karl's mother and her friends smoke pot; Karl's friends smoke pot and cigarettes.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this is very gritty, raw, uncensored, and disturbing. It is leavened with humor, but the terror of being a child or teen who is locked out by your own abusive or neglectful parents without knowing when you might eat again is searing. The "Madmen" are kids who have been "sentenced" to group therapy at school; some of them because they have been abused and/or have emotional problems, some of them because they are mentally ill. It is rough to read, but many teens may find it compelling. The cursing is nonstop. Still, Karl's explosive rage and his history of torturing small animals, the psychotic sexual acting out of Darla, and Paul's cruising may be as disturbing for sophisticated teens as it is for adult readers. Although this won a Printz Honor, it's not for everyone. The point is frequently made that these very troubled teens are sitting next to very normal, more fortunate classmates who do not realize the horrors their friends and peers are living. That's a valid point, and teens should be aware, but parents may want to think about whether this book is the right tool for delivering that message.

What's the story?

Seventeen-year-old Karl Shoemaker starts his senior year of high school aiming to survive, have sex, and maybe fool people into thinking he's normal. Years of required weekly therapy at school have formed an unbreakable bond for Karl and other assigned students, who call themselves the MADMAN underground. Karl thinks he is willing to turn his back on them to be popular, but whenever one of them is threatened, Karl can't help but come to their rescue. He goes to AA, works four or five jobs, sneaks food and shelter to his friends when they need it, and tries to hide money so his mother can't spend it on pot. School dances, football, and reading assignments compete for time with his jobs and his chores. His anger issues, addictive tendencies, a psychotic cheerleader, and self-destructive gay best friend almost overwhelm him before a couple of positive guys finally step in to help.

Is it any good?


This is high school in hell, but Karl keeps his sense of humor and hope; the book is frenetic, fast-paced, funny, and painfully revealing about the kids that society lets slip through the cracks. They're the ones who would rather hide from their parents and go hungry than get sent to foster care or detention homes. Some of them are driven to abusive and self-destructive behavior by their parents' abuse, but a few of them are just mentally unstable themselves. Thrown together by teachers who think they are helping, these kids form a volatile group who help each other survive.

The main character is luckily a very resilient young man who can't turn his back on his friends, or hardly anyone else. Karl's history of mutilating small animals and the self-destructive tendencies of his friends are nearly as difficult to read about as the adults in this small town who turn their backs on these kids, even though they know what is going on behind closed doors. Brutally sad, but ultimately hopeful, this book is only for older, mature teens, and not even all of them.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about Karl's contradictions. He holds down several jobs, goes to school, and is a good friend, and yet he has committed some violent acts. Are Karl's actions normal?

  • Karl has a complicated relationship with his mother. Many of the "Madmen" have abusive parents. If you had a friend in that situation, how would you help them?

  • The Madmen are get counseling at school, yet they seem to have the same problems year after year. What part of the system is failing them?

  • This story is set in the 1970s. What did you notice was different in lifestyles for teens between then and now? Do you think it was easier or harder to be a teenager then?

  • Were you surprised at the ending? Were you hopeful?

Book details

Author:John Barnes
Genre:Coming of Age
Book type:Fiction
Publication date:June 1, 2009
Number of pages:532
Publisher's recommended age(s):14 - 17
Read aloud:15
Read alone:15

This review of Tales of the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance 1973 was written by

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Teen, 14 years old Written byboomboomboommuffins January 27, 2011

Great for anyone 15+

Although at some points disturbing, this books is just fantastic. It's laugh-out-loud funny, brutally honest, and heart-warming all at the same time. The book does contain graphic language and some sexual references and scenes. I'd say a very mature 13 or 14 year-old should be able to handle all of it, and anyone 15 or over should have no problem with the mature nature of this book. This work of art describes six days of the life of a "madman" trying to distance himself from his therapy group to lead a more normal life. This novel is superbly written, and I reccomend that you read it ASAP.
What other families should know
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Great messages
Great role models
Teen, 13 years old Written byelreader46 August 18, 2010
Very bad language but a good coming of age story.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Adult Written byTomato-Face April 18, 2011

I don't know about Romance, but this is a good book

I find that this book, despite the colorful use of vocabulary, to be a good book. While this book deals with matters that most people would actually leave behind closed doors such as Karl's parents relationship, how loose his mother is, and the not-so-glamorous issues that some writes avoid. While there is humor in order to lighten the load, you can still fill the frustration that Karl feels as his mother's destructive behavior and his need to try and fit in. But in the end, there is a light in the tunnel, and a small metamorphosis happens for the good. John Barne's style is very fluid and rather believable as well as how in depth his characters are. Though I wouldn't suggest 11 yr olds reading this, this book has a good discussion points a diamond in the rough.
What other families should know
Too much swearing
Educational value
Great messages


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