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America's Report Card: A Novel Hardcover – July 11, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
McNally (The Book of Ralph) takes a satiric, paranoid look at the dastardly machinations behind standardized testing. Charlie Wolf, 23, opts to stay in Iowa City after finishing graduate film school and secures for himself and his girlfriend, Petra Petrovich, what he presumes will be a cake job for the summer before the 2004 election: scoring standardized tests. While grading, he comes across an essay written by Jainey O'Sullivan, a 17-year-old suburban Chicago girl whose alarming assertions about the death of her art teacher—the Feds took her out for her anti-Bush rhetoric—touch him. (That Petra leaves him for a man living in Chicago also compels him to act.) It soon occurs to Charlie that the tests are designed to analyze the person taking the test, and when Charlie is transferred to the testing company's Chicago office, he discovers his suspicions are correct. Jainey, meanwhile, is obsessed with conspiracy theories and has a father in jail and a sociopath older brother (who is prone to hallucinations) living in the attic of the family house. The bizarre plot and colorful characters make for an engrossing read, though some readers may find the politicking too heavy-handed. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
McNally parlays the humorous, off-kilter vision in The Book of Ralph (2004), a coming-of-age tale set in a seedy Chicago suburb, into an even more high-voltage, culturally discerning, agilely comedic novel of Midwest angst and national paranoia. Jainey O'Sullivan, 17, finds refuge in creating a comic strip about Lloyd the Freakazoid while her father serves time in prison, her very scary brother sequesters himself in the attic, and her mother smokes. Weary of school, unnerved by her art teacher's death, and traumatized by what she is discovering about the world, Jainey pens an alarming personal essay for the last of the wretched national standardized tests she'll ever have to take. Her worrisome revelations catch the attention of a depressed employee of the National Testing Center in Iowa City. Charlie Wolf, just out of graduate school, has had his heart broken and is terrified of getting stuck in his lousy job. He decides to go to Burbank, Illinois, to rescue Jainey. These two compelling misfits form an unlikely alliance and confront a society gone mad. McNally's flair for the absurd, poker-faced humor, and dead-on critique of post-9/11 fearmongering are matched by crisp dialogue, superb pacing, and compassionate regard for humankind. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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But that is the end of provocative self-reflection. The novel soon takes a bizarre turn into Conspiracy-Land, when Charlie's Russian girlfriend, the belabored Petra Petrovich, turns out to have a second life, and he becomes preoccupied with the self-indulgent meanderings of a high school student's (Jainey's) essay he's been assigned to score; Charlie leaves town for Chicago with a dim hope of reclaiming Petra while protecting Jainey. Weird does not begin to describe the zig-zags of the plot in the second half of the book, where characters drop in and out (what is the point of Mariah, the kindly proprietress of a wig store??), and violence escalates to an absurd extent. It's not clear who entertains the most peculiar conspiracies, the author or the characters. Does McNally really believe that the national testing movement includes predictions of every citizen's psychological tendencies and ultimate fate? It's hard to tell; it seems he just might--that's how tenuous the satire becomes! Spoiler Alert: Ultimately, the the books peters out in a hugely anticlimactic saccharine ending. Jainey gets a boyfriend and a dog; Dale gets a purpose in Life! (Really, these are such minor events, I can hardly be called a spoiler).
What's inexplicable is that through all of the above, the book remains enjoyable!
- Buffalo Springfield
Enough other reviewers have summarized the plot of this novel that for me to do the same would be akin to writing cliff notes to cliff notes. (It would bore both of us and won't tell you anything about the book that you probably don't already know by now.)
I will say, however, that I found this book extremely compelling, and I was hooked into it from the first few pages. It's a dark and wonderful paranoid fantasy filled with enough social satire and black humor to make it simultaneously hilarious and deeply poignant.
Normally, I am not one to engage in or encourage conspiracy theories, but the unprecedented amount of secrecy that our current administration insists on is enough to encourage some paranoid thoughts even in the most well-adjusted of citizens. John McNally does a masterful job of pulling those disquieting thoughts out into the open and shoving them in your face in a manner that makes you laugh, applaud, and shake your head in disbelief all at the same time.
It is no small feat to have conspiracy theories (some plausible, some wildly implausible) drive so many characters in one book. It is even more difficult to do this while preserving reader sympathy for the essential humanity of the characters in question.
I positively adored this book from start to finish and can honestly say that it's one of the best books that I've read in the last five years.
On a small side note, I must take exception to the review that stated "McNally ... fails when it comes to writing female characters" and that the "conversations between his main male and female characters are so clearly male written". On the contrary, I found myself frequently surprised that he succeeded in nailing the female perspective so well.
Clearly, that review was written by a man. (*wink*)