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The Book of Ralph: A Novel Hardcover – February 24, 2004


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (February 24, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743255550
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743255554
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.7 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #599,810 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Following a collection of short stories (Troublemakers), this enjoyable first novel is a nostalgic trip back to late 1970s suburban Chicago and the foibles of eighth-grader Hank and his twice left-back delinquent pal, Ralph. The novel unfolds in a series of comic episodes, chief among them the boys' Halloween adventure with Ralph's ex-con cousin, Norm, and Norm's attempt to unload a trunk of stolen Tootsie Rolls; a hilarious afternoon spent wearing Big Bird and Snuffleupagus costumes to promote the opening of a car dealership; Hank's father's effort to turn the family house upside down and win the local Christmas decoration contest; and Hank's obsession with a potential new CB for his mom's Maverick. Particularly memorable is Hank's job at South Side Records, where he tries out a variety of vintage-era vinyl, from Kiss to the Rocky soundtrack, then quits in disgust at the sleazy store owner's corner-cutting. The novel is sprinkled with other '70s cultural artifacts, too: Evel Knievel, the rock band Styx and Star Wars cards. The tone is predominantly light, but the seriousness of Hank's parents' constant smoking, bickering and their inevitable breakup is subtly conveyed, and McNally nicely captures Hank's pubescent angst, naivete and insecurity. The last section is a little over the top, with rudderless, 35-year-old accountant Hank returning to Chicago after many years and, much to his surprise, falling in with Ralph again and working for Ralph's cousins in the crime scene clean-up business. The two get caught up in an unlikely murder scenario and, as Hank discovers, it is possible to go home again. This lively novel will appeal to fans of Rich Cohen's Lake Effect or even Jean Shepherd's wistful fiction.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

In this collection of tightly interconnected short stories, narrator Hank details his misadventures with the scheming, eccentric Ralph. Having already been held back twice by the time they become friends in eighth grade, Ralph is nonetheless charmingly bright and mischievous--he does extensive research in the library, for instance, before finalizing his price list for his business of mob-style hits (he charges $15 for chewing off an ear, though naturally never goes through with it). In another story, Ralph convinces Hank that Hank's dad is an artistic genius after he begins collecting trash that looks vaguely like different Christmas decorations--three beanbag chairs for a snowman, for instance. Thus Hank imagines his dad as a kind of latter-day Picasso. The final story moves forward in time from the 1970s to 2001, with Hank and Ralph working together cleaning up after homicides and suicides. Ralph is a memorably lovable troublemaker, and though the stories don't really build upon one another to form a cohesive whole, McNally's talent for characterization and his lush sense of place make for funny and oddly compelling reading. John Green
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

More About the Author

John McNally is the author of three novels, After the Workshop, America's Report Card, and The Book of Ralph; and two story collections, Ghosts of Chicago and Troublemakers. He is also author Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction (forthcoming, 2013) and The Creative Writer's Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist. He has edited six anthologies, including Who Can Save Us Now: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories (co-edited with Owen King). John's short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in over ninety magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, including Virginia Quarterly Review, Washington Post, The Sun, Open City, Chicago Tribune, New Sudden Fiction (Norton), and Long Story Short (University of North Carolina Press). His work has appeared in the textbooks Winding Roads: Exercises in Writing Creative Nonfiction and Behind the Short Story: From First Draft to Final Draft, both published by Longman. John has been the recipient of numerous awards for his writing, including a Chesterfield Writer's Film Project for screenwriting (sponsored by Paramount Pictures), the Jenny McKean Moore fellowship for fiction (sponsored by George Washington University), and the Carl Djerassi fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin. His short stories have been cited three times as an outstanding story of the year in the Best American Short Stories series (1991, 2007, and 2008). John has taught creative writing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Western State College of Colorado, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of South Florida at Tampa, George Washington University, and Columbia College Chicago. He has given over a hundred readings all across the country, from New York City to Honolulu, from Bellingham, Washington, to Sanibel Island, Florida. A native of Chicago's southwest side, he is at present an associate professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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We somehow come to see the world differently as well.
Scott Kaukonen
The stories are in perfect order and flow very much like the chapters you'd find in a regular novel.
Michael Crane
I finished the book in two days and still find myself laughing.
Amazon Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Several years ago I came across McNally's short-story collection Troublemakers, and enjoyed it immensely. Three of the stories from that collection (The Vomitorium, Smoke, The Grand Illusion) reappear here in slightly different form as chapters, and almost every other chapter has appeared in various lit journals or alternative media. Indeed the book is really an anthology of related stories about one character which share a tone that mixes humor, pathos, and keen observation. Those looking for a strong narrative framework may be disappointed, but this free-form approach allows McNally to create a series of extremely strong stories that form a very compelling coming of age story.
The book is about Hank, a 13-year-old kid growing up in southwest Chicago in the late '70s, and develops his friendship with Ralph, who is two years older. Hank is a prototypical lower-middle class white kid, average grades, unremarkable looks, dead center in the pecking order, and nothing to distinguish himself except being friends with Ralph. Ralph, on the other hand, is known throughout the junior high and neighborhood as someone to avoid at all costs. Without firm parental authority at home, he's turned into a bit of a bully and small-time juvenile delinquent, but is also wildly imaginative, and constantly dreaming up bizarre schemes to raise money and extract revenge on the world. Their friendship is unlikely, and Hank ascribes it to an innate politeness. From their first encounter, Hank has always been too polite to reject Ralph, and so he becomes a kind of default sidekick. This creates a tension that runs throughout the first section: will Hank ever be able to break free of Ralph, or will he get caught up in and dragged down by the effects of the older boy's wildness?
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Michelaneous by Michele on July 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a fantastic read--a real page-turner. Congratulations to John McNally for being a gifted storyteller and for putting this collection together in an interesting and creative manner. He has presented a true time capsule complete with scenery, music, language and costume.

Ralph is the boy we all knew--an attention hound dressed in a flannel shirt, who spent a lot of time in the school hallways on his way to the dean's office. Hank, however, who tells his stories from the gray, "who am I" world of suburban Chicago in the 70s, is the boy who faded into the woodwork. He's the boy who was up for anything to make his world a little more exciting and often didn't have a choice when it came to dealing with his eccentric father and, of course, Ralph. Each character, including Hank's sister Kelly and even the lady next door, Mrs. Rybecki, who suffers from Tourette's syndrome, are keenly developed and highly entertaining.

When we meet Hank in the future, he's like the guy at your 25th class reunion who everyone wants to know. Even though he's down on his luck and must resort to a life in Ralph's domain, he's interesting, good looking sensitive and . . . funny. Somehow you just know that everything is A-OK with Hank.

I loved this book.

Michele Cozzens is the author of It's Not Your Mother's Bridge Club.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Debbie Lee Wesselmann TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
John McNally, author of the collection Troublemakers and the editor of numerous anthologies, makes his novelistic debut with this gently satiric story about the odd relationship between the narrator Hank and the school bad boy. Much of the novel unfolds in Chicago during the seventies as Hank navigates the awkwardness of junior high. He becomes the reluctant sidekick of Ralph, the oldest boy in the fifth grade (Ralph was left back twice) and the one who dreams up harebrained schemes, most of which could end up with both boys in police custody. Ralph's older and probably criminal cousins, Kenny and Norm, steer the boys in dubious directions. Despite their shared adventures, Hank and Ralph seem destined to go their separate ways in adulthood, with Ralph the kind of kid that ends up a felon and Hank likely to live quietly in the suburbs. Each has a different vision of the future, with Hank's gleaming paper towel tube city contrasting sharply with Ralph's meticulous rendition no different from the present. The final quarter of the novel reveals the truth as McNally leaps ahead into 2001.

McNally employs an anecdotal method of storytelling, with individual scenes coming together more like a collage than a traditional novel, and the technique lends a memory box feel to the bulk of the work. References to the seventies abound, and readers having lived through the times will laugh at McNally's ironic eye. The non-linear sequences can be confusing, as it's not always clear when certain events occurred in context with the rest, but McNally's lucid style draws the reader along with authority.

The Book of Ralph is an entertaining and adept book that should appeal to a general readership. I recommend this as a complement to Ward Just's An Unfinished Season, a very different novel about growing up in Chicago.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By james nordberg on June 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
You beat me to it. I never thought anyone would ever talk about Burbank, or Ford City or Peacock Alley, or Bird's Paradise, or Our neighborhood, and I promise I'll be the second one to do so, but I saw your book last night, and I love it!!!!!
I love my neighborhood, even though you are 10 years older than me, I know everything you talk about, I live here still.
John, thanks for bringing the true South Side out: the one no one ever talks about.
Jim,
Burbank, IL
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