Last week was one of the few weeks I rushed home for a white guy. I couldn’t wait to find out more about Karl Shoemaker, not because he was trying to be normal but because he’s such a sincere, funny and interesting guy. He lived up in Lightsburg, Ohio near my hometown of Toledo and graduated high school just before me. Karl is the main character in John Barne’s Printz winning Tales of the madman underground, an historical romance in 1973
. Karl has been meeting weekly for years with the same group of students, all of whom are madmen suffering from psychotic behaviors developing from their parents inability or unwillingness to do what human adults typically do and care for their children. Needless to say, these madmen have few friends outside their group so they learn to trust only each other when they need a place to sleep, food to eat or someone to save them from the hands of classmates while strolling in the gay part of town in Toledo. Their personal issues stem from almost every kind of abuse you can imagine yet they seem to be working together to find ways to support each other as they attempt to learn how to navigate through life without causing or acquiring any more pain. I think that’s the most amazing thing about Karl, that he can still manage to not want to see others suffer unnecessarily.Karl didn’t care that his best friend finally announced that he’s gay. He couldn’t take advantage of girls who basically threw themselves at him, even though he figured that meant he wouldn’t lose his virginity until he was 30, and he could never manage to disrespect his mom or any adult regardless if the stole from him, lied to him or did nothing to protect him. But, he couldn’t let adult males disrespect young girls nor would he sit idle when they offended Blacks or mentally challenged people. I’m sure in this predominately white town that there were many opportunities to hurl racial slurs, but one thing Karl’s liberal, alcoholic and self-destructive parents managed to instill in their son was to respect all life.And, that makes me wish that instead of putting a random Black person in the town and using the racism in Huck Finn to bring racial issues to the story, that Barnes would have given us a Black madman.
As fate would have it, I found my own.
Days before I was to end Tales of a madman a book called Pull by B. A. Binns appeared in my mailbox. I’m not sure why, but I sat here, dropped the envelope to the floor and read the book and in doing so, I met David Albacore, another madman. David is also 17, but he’s moved to Chicago and is attempting to hide who he is so he can run from his past. He blames himself for what happened to his mom and he’s trying to protect his sisters and give them a normal life. David is trying to be normal (see the theme here?) on his own but in doing so, he comes off just a little too perfect. While Binn’s story gives us the violence we’ve come to expect in novels about young Black men, she also brings a sense of civility as David struggles to be the man his mom wants him to be. The code for him, and for Karl, is never to narc to adults. They, like most kids think adults should know what’s going on, but no one ever tells the adults what is going on. David thinks men should handle situations on their his own and Binn reinforces this by never giving female characters the resources to solve a problem on their own.
Though dealing with tremendous personal issues, Karl and David’s leadership skills, maturity and humanity manage to emerge. They both manage to learn to trust adults while at the same time make major decisions about their own future. Each of them have incredible men in their lives and if only they’d realized it sooner!
Race is not an issue in David’s story, In fact, there are a few adults who help him who’s race is ever made clear.
Perhaps in choosing to create such tragic characters Barnes and Binn were able to show us how good and decent we can each choose to be, how normal we all are despite the crap that is dumped on us. I’m going to miss that white guy, Karl!
Tales of a madman underground: an historical romance 1973
author: John Barnes
publisher: Viking, 2009
main character: Karl Shoemaker
(copy from my school library)
author: B. A. Binns
publisher: Westside Books, October 2010
main character: Davide Albacor
(publisher provided ARC)
And, I have news to share!! (sorry about the placement… WordPress sucks sometimes)