** spoiler alert **
Barne's novel focuses on Karl Shoemaker, a rather complicated 17 year old living life in 1973 in a small town outside Toledo, OH. Karl is one of several kids in his high school who pretty much grew up in a therapy group the members have jokingly dubbed the Madman Underground. Each member has his her own set of unique problems: Karl's father---the town's former mayor---died a few years ago, sending his mother out to reclaim her lost Hippie roots. Other kids in the group struggle with homosexuality, promiscuity, drug use, poor home situations, and more. This year, his senior year in high school, Karl sets out to become "normal" and cut himself off from the group. But despite everything Karl tries he just can't pull away from strong ties he's developed since childhood. Barne's also uses the device of Marti, a new member to the Madman group, as an excuse to have Karl tell us what's wrong with his fellow members.
If this sounds dark, it often is. But it's also funny. Told in a first person narrative by Karl, his world view is unique and often freakishly sarcastic. Despite having a mother crazy enough to empty out his own bank account so she can go out and party, Karl still manages to get in some quick jokes between all the pathos.
The novel's largely a character study; while I won't go so far to say it's plotless it does lack that one, central and overpowering conflict a lot of readers really look for in a novel. For me the explorations of all the characters in the Madman Underground more than make up for this but the lack of a central conflict might make this seem long and boring readers who need a book with a more obvious direction. Well-written, funny and more than a little thought-provoking, I'm really curious to check out some of Barnes's other work.