Tales of the Madman Underground, John Barnes

Viking, 2009, 532 pages, C$23.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06081-8

One of the paradoxes of genre publishing is that it can be as comforting in its ghetto-like nature as it can stifle those looking to try something new.  Genre fans can provide a certain predictable sales baseline, but convincing them to try something outside the boundaries of the genre can be difficult.  For every Dan Simmons able to write equally well in science-fiction, horror, fantasy and mainstream, there are a plenty of other SF writers getting no success trying to sell techno-thrillers.

Then there are those who seem to relish breaking genre conventions.  John Barnes is, in many ways, the model of a mid-list SF genre writer, but his lengthy bibliography is filled with oddities and small surprises.  In addition to a solid core bibliography of Science Fiction novels written for adult and young adult audiences, Barnes also wrote less conventional speculative fiction: From a trilogy of men’s adventure thrillers to a light-hearted fantasy to a meta-SFictional tall tale to hard-SF novels written in collaboration with Buzz Aldrin, Barnes manages to defy and subvert expectations once every two or three novels.  I’ve got most of his bibliography (Heck, I even have his early obscure “Time Raider” trilogy in my stack of things to read) and I’m still surprised by what he dares to do.

Now, with Tales of the Madman Underground, he turns his attention to mainstream young adult fiction.  Taking place in 1973 Ohio, this YA novel shows a few hints of Barnes’ SF pedigree: The main character read Philip K Dick and has to turn to a convention-going classmate for explanations.  A few other references can be read as reassuring winks to Barnes’ existing audience (who may be familiar with Barnes’ other young-adult Science Fiction novels), but Tales of the Madman Underground is otherwise a completely mainstream teen novel.

It takes place over the first six days of Karl Shoemaker’s senior High School year.  He has the best of intentions: To be normal.  “Normal”, in Karl’s case, is a challenge.  Not everyone lives with an unstable widowed mother and dozens of quasi-feral cats.  Not everyone works five jobs and has to hide their money from their flighty mom.  Not everyone is a recovering alcoholic teen.  Not everyone has been branded a psychopath, sent to group therapy and pre-emptively condemned to a permanent psychological record.  Karl’s goal is to take his last year one day at a time, and be as normal as possible to avoid returning to “the Madman Underground.”  It’s not that his best friends aren’t Madmen… but he’d rather try to be normal for a while.

I’m not going to attempt guessing how much of Tales of the Madman Underground is nostalgia for Barnes (who was 16 in 1973); it’s more useful to note that this is a novel by an experienced novelist, and that the result is a solid success.  The atmosphere of a small Midwestern town is described with idiosyncratic flavour and the characters that surround Karl are richly sketched.  The titular Madmen may have been designated as broken minds by the system, but the novel shows how even the most distressed of them can depend on each other for support and so deserve our sympathy.  (In one of the book’s best scenes, they show up the school’s newest therapist… and find out that she’s an unexpected ally.)  Karl himself is a likable protagonist, emboldened and hardened by situations that others would find desperate.  We root for him to a rare degree, and the small victories that constitute his ultimate triumph are earned many times over.

Karl’s narration is direct, suitably profane, and addictive from the very first few pages.  The terrific dialogue is a joy to read, making the 500+pages book seem much shorter.  The narrative flow isn’t complicated, but it’s enlivened by numerous subplots (many of them relating to Karl’s numerous side-jobs) and a series of stories about the Madman Underground’s most memorable adventures.  Set in 1973, it seems just as relevant today.

Anyone who has read more than two Barnes novels knows that he can write dark-and-repulsive like the worst of them.  And while Tales of the Madman Underground has its share of uncomfortable moments (including a sequence where we’re temporarily brought to doubt the reliability of the potentially-psychotic narrator), it features one of Barnes’ most sympathetic character yet and it leads to an unusually triumphant conclusion.  The obstacles facing Karl are formidable, but they’re overcome fairly and the last few pages are smiles upon smiles.  It adds up to one of Barnes’ most enjoyable books yet, and a rare one of his that can be described as unabashedly upbeat.  Even die-hard genre SF fans willing to genre-hop and follow Barnes in his historical adventure will get much out of it.

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