High school senior Karl Shoemaker just wants to be normal. Since fourth grade, Karl has been unable to escape the stigma of the Madman Underground, a school therapy group for screwed-up kids (he earned the nickname "Psycho" after cutting up a classmate's rabbit in seventh grade). But with a drunken, hippie mom who believes that Nixon is in cahoots with aliens and who steals Karl's hard-earned money, a horde of pet cats that leave droppings everywhere and a claustrophobic hometown that still worships his deceased father (the former mayor), Karl's quest for normalcy seems doomed. In his YA debut, Barnes masterfully turns what should be a depressing tale about teenage misfits who are regularly abused, molested or neglected into a strangely heartwarming story about a kid who refuses to suck the lemons life keeps handing him, the bonds of friendship and the lengths a son will go to protect his mother. The language is R-rated, but with Breakfast Club-like realism, Barnes delivers scenes from which, like a car wreck, readers will be unable to look away. Ages 14-up. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
. . . rarely will you read something so lovingly vulgar, so fiercely warmhearted, and so exuberantly expansive that even its long-windedness becomes part of its rogue charm., starred review
The real draw of this novel lies in the brilliant character study of Karl Shoemaker.
VOYA - Denzil Sikka
Karl Shoemaker has only one wish: to be normal. Of course, if wishes were cattle, he'd be eating steak everyday. Karl has been attending group therapy for years, but now that he's a senior, he's had enough. Join Karl as he learns what being normal really means. Barnes creates a mind-captivating story that depicts a realistic and fast-paced world with great character development. You won't be able to put it down. Reviewer: Denzil Sikka, Teen Reviewer
VOYA - Lauri Vaughan
When asked what message he would like readers to take from his work, science fiction writer Barnes responded to the Web interview question, "Don't be lonely. There's love someplace, especially for the hopelessly odd (http://www.hardsciencefiction.rogerdeforest.com/?mode=8&id=7). And you are carrying around the love someone else needs. Better get that delivered. Look for someone odd." Barnes' first foray into young adult fiction brings his response to life in Karl Shoemaker, a young man who attempts to put together a normal senior year, one hour at a time. First step: avoid life-long friend Paul and other fellow members of the Madman Underground, a tight-knit group who share weekly therapy sessions to overcome severely dysfunctional situations. Karl's problems arise from the death of his father, former beloved mayor of the small Ohio town where Paul lives. Karl loves and misses his father, but he struggles to become something other than "Doug Shoemaker's kid." Of more immediate concern is his alcoholic, firebrand mom, Beth, who steals Karl's caches of savings for her nightly jags. Teens initially turned off by Barnes's liberal use of profanities and the book's length will be captured by the sharp, funny dialogue and crisp personalities of the Madmen. Even minor characters are distinctive. Readers can understand Karl's love for his mom who, despite horrific failings, retains lovable qualities. Barnes lets his story play out; pacing is excellent and despite its length, the story flies to a satisfying conclusion. Barnes's YA debut is an excellent selection for book clubs of older teens that like sinking their teeth into longer stories with substance. Reviewer: Lauri Vaughan
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up–Karl Shoemaker, in group therapy at school since fourth grade, turns a new leaf on the first day of senior year, 1973. His goal is to be normal and avoid therapy while still keeping his friends, who are all part of the Madman Underground. Karl’s widowed mother is an alcoholic, hippie, conspiracy-theorist slut who steals his earnings (he has five jobs) for benders. At one time or another, most Madmen are locked out of their houses by drunk or absent parents, or don’t go home to avoid getting beaten, or felt up. They depend on one another’s hospitality by way of empty basements, open windows, and unlocked cars. Barnes writes with amazing ease and clarity. He has a light, immediate feel for character, and the ensemble of Madmen, teachers, parents, and crotchety townspeople is distinct and fully formed. Dialogue between Karl and this motley crew is mostly hilarious, expletive laden, and consistently flawless. Karl’s conversations with Marti, the newest Madman, are among the most heart-melting in teen literature. Barnes’s descriptions of small-town Ohio defy the usual pitfalls of the back-when-the-author-was-a-teen setting–Lightsburg is so believably backward it seems timeless. While a moral dilemma may seem an underwhelming plot device, Karl’s psychological journey is consistently gripping. His narration is so easy and engaging, so sweet and funny, so astonishingly truthful that teens will rip through these 500-plus pages and want more.–Johanna Lewis, New York Public Library
With excruciating, mind-numbing detail and a lot of swear words, 17-year-old Karl chronicles the first six days of his senior year. Karl's biggest antagonist is his mother, a crazy cat lady who drinks like a fish, acts like a teenager and talks like a second grader. Because of his mother, Karl works four jobs and squirrels away his money in jars around the house. His friends at school enjoy equally dysfunctional lives. In less than a week, Karl redefines his friendships and almost loses his virginity twice. At its high points, the story moves swiftly through witty dialogue and heartbreaking observations of parental cruelty. At its low points, which far outnumber the high ones, Karl is obnoxious, even terrifying in his antisocial behavior, and his friends are unbelievable in their ridiculousness. Due to its length and the frustration of waiting some 100 pages between the start and continuation of some story lines, only the most stubborn of readers will stay past the 37 dead cats to the tiresome, if very tidy, ending. (Historical fiction. 14 & up)
From the Publisher
"Rarely will you read something so lovingly vulgar, so fiercely warmhearted, and so exuberantly expansive . . . the culmination comes off like a teenage One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." -Booklist, starred review
"His narration is so easy and engaging, so sweet and funny, so astonishingly truthful that teens will rip through these 500-plus pages and want more." -School Library Journal, starred review
"Darkly comic . . . as troubled, relevant, relatable and hilarious as J.D. Salinger." -Los Angeles Times
Children's Literature - Maggie Chase
I will admit it, I had to work hard to stay with this book. Now that I have finished it, I am willing to re-read it, since it was not until close to the end that I began to appreciate the protagonist Karl Shoemaker. The 500 plus page story is told completely from Karl's point of view, so with it we get his extremely cuss-laden inner speech (which, interestingly, ceases almost completely by the fifth day of this six-day tale), as well as his somewhat sophomoric and unsophisticated point of view. Three pages into his tale, he tells us that his hair "clung blandly to my skull like chocolate pudding running down a bowling ball." When is the lastor even firsttime you saw chocolate pudding doing that? It reminded me of the annual contest for worst similes. But again, I had to remind myself that Karl is the speaker here, not Mr. Barnes, and Karl is definitely talking to us with his high school, hormone-driven body and mind. Nevertheless, he is a good kid who struggles valiantly and admirably to hold his life togetherto be normalgiven that he has been dealt some tough cards: an alcoholic mother who has not grown up and is incredibly self-centered, and a small town hero of a dad who has died prematurely. What I began to appreciate about the book is the way Karl and his friends stick together, the work ethic and responsibility Karl demonstrates, and the way several adults in this community look out for and respect him. Karl's goal to be a normal kid suffers many setbacks in this first week of his senior year, including trying to catch the cat who keeps using his bed as a litter box, working four sometimes five jobs to stay ahead of his mother's irresponsible spending sprees on booze and parties, and his troubling fallout with a lifelong friend. The enigmatic title will not attract readers to this book, but perhaps a book talk that includes reading a few eventful or humorous scenes will, sans the numerous f-bombs. Reviewer: Maggie Chase