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

4.7 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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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
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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: 9.5 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.7 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,695,069 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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By A Customer on February 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover
'The Book of Ralph' fulfills a major fiction goal for me ? taking me to a place I haven't been. That place is the southwest side of Chicago in the late 70s. John McNally renders Chicago in full details and his narrator, Hank, is a great guide. McNally also paces the book in a wonderful way by inserting smaller sections that take me by surprise.
McNally's writing is wonderful. He is succinct without falling into the minimalism trap, and he avoids unnecessary detail. The story, place and characters drive this book. The author stays out of the way even though I laughed out loud several times (a tough trick to do without resorting to one-liners). When Hank becomes obsessed with a CB radio, McNally left me hurting from laughing so much.
Hank gives us the story without wiping Vaseline on the lens of memory. This is not a sentimental story about the nostalgia of the late 70s. And McNally finishes the book with a wonderful closer of where Ralph and Hank are today. He finishes the story without being too tidy.
This is a fine book. I highly recommend his collection, 'Troublemakers,' as well.
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