October 2005

Beth Dugan


The Book of Ralph by John McNally

John McNally has captured '70s Southside Chicago under a glass for readers to gaze into like an ant farm. Here is the Tootsie Roll Plant where older brothers and cousins work. Here is the crazy neighbor with Tourette's Syndrome spewing obscenities at hard working mothers. Over there is the right side of the tracks where fathers root through the garbage and here is the wrong side where Hank lives. In the center of this contained world is the best-friend-but-not-really-a-friend-just-someone-to-hang-out-with Ralph.

Though it is The Book of Ralph, McNally’s second book, tells the story of Hank Boyd, Styx fan, lustful pre-teen and Ralph’s accomplice in a bevy of schemes including hunting down the JC Penney modeling pictures of a cute girl in their class or getting some quick cash by dressing as Big Bird and Snuffleupagus at a car dealership opening (and living out the wet dream of the cutest girl in school sitting Hank’s lap like he is Santa Claus). Ralph had been held back twice and was therefore the oldest person in Hank’s class. Hank relates, "I didn't know why Ralph and I were friends. The best I could figure, it was because I'd been taught to be polite. Everyone else was too afraid of Ralph to stand around and listen to what he had to say. But the more I listened to him, the more I liked him. If I were any smarter, though, I would have done what the other kids did -- run full tilt in the opposite direction."

Ralph is Machiavellian in his interests. He tries to start a business doing bodily harm to his classmates with a list of services like “Both Eyes Blacked 4” and “Ear chawed off 15.” He dresses as an Etruscan for Halloween, Krazy Gluing butter knives to his fingers (“I’m an Etruscan. Very brilliant but very violent.”) and he keeps a list of 600 names of people on his “Revenge List.” Hank’s name is eventually added to this list. Everyone’s is. Ralph has very high standards and people invariably fail to meet them.

The book is split into three parts: The Present 1978-1979, The Past 1975 (when Hank first enters Ralph’s orbit), and The Future 2001. The strongest section is the The Present. It is filled to the brim with nostalgia for the seventies (CB radios, the Gong show, Styx), pre-teen hilarity, and the family melodrama that is infused with the universal experience. The Future section seems incongruous, as through two books were written and scotch taped together with only the barest relation to one another. Hank loses touch with Ralph quickly in High School. He becomes an accountant and ends up returning to Chicago to look for a job after he is fired from his position in Colorado and breaks up with his fiancé in bizarre and hilarious circumstances. He is adrift and wanders back into Ralph’s world, which is little changed. Ralph takes him in and gets him a job with his feckless cousin’s business. There is drug addiction, embezzling, and murder, which all take the story sharply away from its previous focus and the place where it works best: the relationship between Hank and Ralph.

In wanting to show how Ralph, misunderstood anti-hero, actually rises to the top whereas educated and socially accepted Hank struggles in the future, McNally stumbles. In the first two sections his voice is strong and believable. He takes the reader to this world he recreated and filled with complicated characters. There is nothing about being an adolescent that is as simple as it seems and McNally understands that. There is also nothing about Ralph that is as it seems. He is a both ignorant and blessed with vision. He is violent and loyal. He is both very odd and comfortable with himself. McNally’s book is flawed but such a worthwhile read that it doesn’t matter that it is two books strung together. Take them each separately and don’t judge the whole.

The Book of Ralph by John McNally
Free Press
ISBN: 0743257774
304 Pages