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The Book of Ralph: A Novel

The Book of Ralph: A Novel

4.6 5
by John McNally

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All of us need a Ralph in our lives.

Chicago, 1978. Hank Boyd, a solid B+ student, a good kid, wants eighth grade to be his special year. But when Ralph, an oddball troublemaker who ' s been held back twice, gets the idea that he and Hank are pals, Hank's year devolves into an odyssey as frightening as it is hilarious.

John McNally


All of us need a Ralph in our lives.

Chicago, 1978. Hank Boyd, a solid B+ student, a good kid, wants eighth grade to be his special year. But when Ralph, an oddball troublemaker who ' s been held back twice, gets the idea that he and Hank are pals, Hank's year devolves into an odyssey as frightening as it is hilarious.

John McNally, acclaimed author of Troublemakers, deftly portrays the astonishing, sometimes terrifying world of adolescence in 1970s America: The adult world becomes increasingly untrustworthy, the economy plummets, and families seem to be falling apart, yet the two boys manage to create their own small moments of transcendence.

At once wary and full of wonder, Hank and Ralph will win your heart with their outrageous, poignant, and occasionally scary antics — and they will teach you something about the ties that bind us together, hold us back, and redeem us.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The Chicago he paints has little to do with stockyards, far-flung adventures or lakeside trysts. McNally's Chicago stars John Wayne Gacy and Styx, corrupt aging hippies and fake Jesuses, untouchable Catholic schoolgirls and tough Tootsie Roll-plant workers. His portraits of Hank's placid suburb alternate with the rough-hewn people with whom those who live beyond beltways sometimes share their neighborhoods -- people like Ralph. — Michael Anft
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, naivet 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. Agent, Jenny Bent. 5-city author tour. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A flamed-out dot-commer revisits his fairly grubby apprenticeship in delinquency in the tutelage of an older and street-wiser buddy. The always reliable fascination of the good kid with the possibilities of the hood life knit together anecdotal memoirs set in the seedy southwest corner of Chicago in the late '70s and early '80s. Despite a home life that's spiraling toward the septic tank, eighth-grader Hank Boyd has made it through Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy elementary with pretty good grades, staying out of the principal's office and avoiding confrontation with the older kids who menace the sidewalk. He is certainly doing better than twice-flunked Ralph, the school hellion. Ralph, who lives with his never-seen mum in a shingle-sided shotgun exception to the buff brick postwar neighborhood flouts authority and has criminal connections, cousins Kenny and Norm. Loosely bonded by Hank's qualified admiration and Ralph's pleasure in having a semi-capable assistant, the boys begin to test the tolerance of the community for their brand of largely victimless small crime. Ralph is always proposing stuff that's a lot scarier than any trouble they actually get into, and Hank has to scramble to talk Ralph out of his bad ideas. Kenny and Norm, who have done time and have cars, provide constant peeks at the possibilities of bigger and more dangerous activities, but the worst trouble they get the younger boys into is a gig wearing Sesame Street drag at a used-car lot. Much time is spent dwelling on Hank's preadolescent and unrequited lust for the girls in his class and then for a sexy young teacher. And there is a very amusing reminiscence of CB radio in its glory days. In a longish coda, Hank, now ajobless CPA, returns to Chicago to lick his wounds after losing his girlfriend and again falls in with Ralph and the cousins, who now have a hugely successful business cleaning up crime scenes. Harmless fun for the lads, courtesy of second-timer McNally (Troublemakers, not reviewed). Agent: Jenny Bent/Harvey Klinger

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Free Press
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5.50(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Book of Ralph

A Fiction
By John McNally

Free Press

Copyright © 2004 John McNally
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-5555-0

Chapter One

The Vomitorium

Ralph ran a hand up and over his head, flattening his hair before some freak combination of wind and static electricity blew it straight up and into a real-life fright wig.

We were standing at the far edge of the blacktop at Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Grade School, as far away from the recess monitor as we could get. It was 1978, the year we started eighth grade, though Ralph would have been in high school already if he hadn't failed both the third and fifth grades. He was nearly a foot taller than the rest of us, and every few weeks new sprigs of whiskers popped up along his cheeks and chin, scaring the girls and prompting the principal, Mr. Santoro, to drop into our homeroom unexpectedly and deliver speeches about personal hygiene.

"Boys," Mr. Santoro would say. "Some of you are starting to look like hoodlums." Though he addressed his insult to all the boys, everyone knew he meant Ralph.

Today Ralph pulled a fat Sears catalog out of a grocery sack, shook it at me, and said, "Get a load of this." The catalog was fatter than it should have been, as if someone had dropped it into a swamp and left it there to rot.

"I don't think they sell that stuff anymore," I said. "That's a 1974 catalog, Ralph. That was four years ago."

"Quiet," Ralph said. He licked two fingers, smearing photos and words each time he touched a page to turn it. "I'll show you Patty O'Dell."

"You found it?" I said. "That's it?"

Ralph nodded.

Rumor was that Patty O'Dell had modeled panties for Sears when she was seven or eight, and for the past two years Ralph had diligently pursued the rumor. If there existed somewhere on this planet a photo of Patty O'Dell in nothing but her panties, Ralph was going to find it.

"Here she is, Hank," Ralph said. Reluctantly, he surrendered the mildewed catalog. "Careful with it."

Ralph stood beside me, arms crossed, guarding his treasure. His hair still stood on end, as if he had stuck the very fingers he had licked into a live socket. I looked down at the photo, then peeked up at Ralph, but he just nodded for me to keep my eyes on the catalog.

I had no idea why Ralph and I were friends. I was a B+ student, a model citizen. Ralph already had a criminal record, a string of shoplifting charges all along Chicago's southwest side. He kept mug shots of himself in his wallet. The first time I met Ralph, he had walked up to me and asked if he could bum a smoke. That was four years ago. I was nine. I didn't smoke, but I didn't tell Ralph that. I said, "Sorry. Smoked the last one at recess."

The photo in the catalog was, in fact, of a girl wearing only panties. She was holding each of her shoulders so that her arms crisscrossed over her chest, and though I was starting to feel the first tremors of a boner, the girl in the photo was not Patty O'Dell. Not even close. After two years of fruitless searching, Ralph was starting to get desperate.

"That's not her," I said.

"Of course it's her," he said.

"You're crazy," I said.

"Give it to me." Ralph snatched the catalog out of my hands.

"Ralph. Get real. All you need to do is look at Patty, then look at the girl in the photo. They look nothing alike."

Ralph and I scanned the blacktop, searching for Patty O'Dell. It was Halloween, and I couldn't help myself: I looked instead for girls dressed like cats. All year I would dream about the girls who came to school as cats ... Mary Polaski zipped up inside of a one-piece cat costume, purring, meowing, licking her paws while her stiff, curled tail vibrated behind her with each step she took. Or Gina Morales, actually down on all fours, crawling along the scuffed tile floor of our classroom: up one aisle, down the next, brushing against our legs, and letting us pet her. The very thought of it now gave my heart pause. It stole my breath. But only the younger kids dressed up anymore, and all I could find on the blacktop were Darth Vaders and Chewbaccas, C-3POs and R2-D2s, the occasional Snoopy.

The seventh- and eighth-graders were already tired of Halloween, tired of shenanigans, slouching and yawning, waiting for the day to come to an end. Among us, only Wes Papadakis wore a costume, a full-head rubber Creature from the Black Lagoon mask suctioned to his face. Next to him was Pete Elmazi, who wore his dad's Vietnam army jacket every day to school, no matter the season, and whose older brother was locked up in a juvenile home for delinquents because he'd beaten another kid to death with a baseball bat. There was Fred Lesniewski, who stood alone, an outcast for winning the science fair eight years in a row, since everyone knew his father worked at Argonne National Laboratory - where the white deer of genetic experiments loped behind a hurricane-wire fence, and where tomatoes grew to be the size of pumpkins - and that it was Fred's father (and not Fred) who was responsible for such award-winning projects as "How to Split an Atom in Your Own Kitchen" and "The Zero-Gravity Chamber: Step Inside!"

There were all of these losers, plus a few hundred more, but no Patty. Then, as a sea of people parted, Ralph spotted her and pointed, and at the far end of an ever widening path I saw her: Patty O'Dell. Ralph and I stared speechless, conjuring up the Patty of panty ads, a nearly naked Patty O'Dell letting a stranger snap photos of her while she stood under the hot, blinding lights in her bare feet. It was a thought so unfathomable, I might as well have been trying to grasp a mental picture of infinity, as complex and mysterious as the idea of something never coming to an end.

"You're right," Ralph said, shaking his head. "It's not her." He tossed the catalog off to the side of the blacktop, as if it were a fish too small to keep. He shook his head sadly and said, "Damn, Hank. I thought we had her."

Ralph had told me to meet him outside my house at eight, that his older cousin Norm was going to pick us up and take us to a party. Norm had just started dating Patty O'Dell's older sister, Jennifer, and with Norm's help, Ralph and I hoped to get to the bottom of the panty ads, maybe even score a few mint-condition catalogs from Jennifer, if at all possible.

"You got a costume?" Ralph asked.

"Of course I do," I said. "I've got all sorts of costumes. Hundreds!"

I had lied to Ralph; I didn't own any costumes. In fact, I'd had no plans of dressing up this year. But now I was trapped into scrounging up whatever I could, piecing together a costume from scratch.

My sister, Kelly - though disgusted by my choice and unable to conceal her revulsion - expertly applied the makeup.

"Of all the costumes," she said.

"What's wrong with Gene Simmons? What's wrong with KISS?" I asked.

"One day," she said, smearing grease paint from my eye all the way up to my ear and back. "One day you'll look back on this moment, and you'll consider shooting yourself."

"Okay," I said. "Whatever."

"Just let me know when you reach that point," Kelly said, "and I'll supply the gun."

I found hidden at the back of my parents' closet a stiff black wig hugging a Styrofoam ball. I sneaked a dinner roll out to the garage, spray-painted it black, then pinned it to the top of the wig, hoping it would look like a bun of hair. My parents didn't own any leather, but I found a black Naugahyde jacket instead, along with a pair of black polyester slacks I wore to church. For the final touch, my sister gave me her clogs. She was two years older than me, and her feet were exactly my size.

In the living room, in the shifting light of the color TV, my parents stared at me with profound sadness, as if all their efforts on my behalf had proven futile. My mother looked for a moment as though she might speak, then she turned away, back to the final minutes of M*A*S*H.

Outside, I met Ralph. As far as I could tell, his only costume was a cape. A long black cape. One look at Ralph, and I suddenly felt the weight of what I'd done to myself. Ralph said, "What're you supposed to be? A transvestite?"

"I'm Gene Simmons," I said. "From KISS."

"Jesus," Ralph said. He reached up and touched the dinner roll on top of my head. "What's that?"

"It's a bun," I said.

"I can see that," Ralph said. "But why would you put a hamburger bun on top of your head? And why would you paint it black?"

"It's not that kind of bun," I said.


"At least I'm wearing a costume," I said. "Look at you. Where's your costume? All you've got on is a cape."

Ralph smiled and pulled his left hand from his cape. Butter knives were attached to each of his fingers, including his thumb.

"Holy smoke," I said. It was the most impressive thing I'd ever seen.

"I'm an Etruscan," he said, pronouncing it carefully while rattling his knives in front of my face.

"A what?"

"An Etruscan," Ralph said. "I've been reading a lot of history lately."

"History?" I said. This was news to me. Ralph hated school.

"Yeah," he said. "Stuff about the Romans."

"Romans," I said. I didn't tell Ralph, but I knew a little something about the Romans myself. I wrote my very first research paper in the sixth grade on them, though all I remembered was bits and pieces: the Gallic War, the Ides of March, some creep named Brutus stabbing Caesar to death. The idea of Ralph picking up a book and actually reading it was so preposterous, I decided to lob a few slow ones out to him and test what little he knew against what little I knew.

"So," I said. "What do you think about Caesar?"

"A great man," he said. "He brought a lot of people together."

"Oh really. How'd he do that?"

"Violence," Ralph said. I expected him to smile, but he didn't. His eyes, I noticed, were closer together than I had realized, and his eyebrows were connected by a swatch of fuzz. Ralph glared at me, as if he were thinking about punching me to illustrate what he'd just said. But the thought must have passed, and he said, "Etruscans were the original gladiators. Crazy but smart. Geniuses, actually. Very artistic."

"How'd you get the knives to stick to your fingers?"

"Krazy Glue," Ralph said.

I nodded appreciatively. I had always feared Krazy Glue, scared I'd accidentally glue myself to my mother or father, or to a lamppost. I'd seen such things on the news, men and women rushed to the hospital, their fingers permanently connected to their foreheads.

"What if they don't come off?" I asked.

Ralph said, "I thought of that. That's why I glued them to my fingernails. My fingernails will grow out, see. And then I can clip them."

"You're a genius," I said.

"I'm an Etruscan," he said. "Very brilliant, but violent."

Ralph's cousin Norm eventually pulled up in a Chevy Impala and motioned with his head for us to get in. He was twenty-five years old and ghoulishly thin, but the veins in his arms were thick and bulging to the point where you'd think they were going to explode right there. A spooky guy with spooky veiny arms, but he worked at the Tootsie Roll factory on Cicero Avenue along with Ralph's other cousin, Kenny, and he gave me and Ralph bags of Tootsie Pops each month, which made up in part for the spookiness.

I took the backseat; Ralph rode shotgun. Norm said nothing about our costumes. I reached up and made sure the bun on top of my wig was still there. Norm gunned the engine, then floored it. Blurry strings of ghosts, clowns, and pirates appeared and disappeared along the sidewalk. Pumpkins beamed at us from porch stoops.

A mile or two later, Ralph said, "Where we going, Norm?"

"I've got some business to take care of first."

"What kind of business?"

"I've got a trunkful of goods I need to unload."

Ralph cocked his head. If he were a dog, his ears would have stiffened. He loved the prospect of anything criminal. "Goods," Ralph repeated. "Are they stolen?"

"What do you think?" Norm said.

Ralph turned around, smiled at me, then looked at Norm again. "What kind of goods?" he asked.

Norm lifted his veiny arm and pointed at Ralph. "None of your business," he said. "The less you know, the better."

Ralph nodded. Norm was the only person who could talk to Ralph like that and get away with it. A few minutes later, Norm pulled into a White Hen Pantry parking lot. "I need some smokes," he said, and left us alone with the engine running.

Ralph turned around in his seat. "So what do you think's in the trunk?"

"I don't know," I said.

"Drugs," Ralph said. "That's my guess. Stolen drugs." He turned back to the White Hen to watch his cousin. He rested his hand with the knives on the dashboard and began drumming them quickly. "Maybe guns," he said. "A trunkload of semiautomatic machine guns."

Norm returned to the car, sucking on a cigarette so hard that the tip turned bright orange and crackled. He filled the entire car with smoke and said, "I ran into a little trouble two nights ago. Serious trouble. I'll admit, I fucked up. But hey, everyone fucks up every now and then, right? Huh? Am I right?"

"Right," Ralph said.

"Right on," I said. I lifted my fist in the air, a symbol of brotherhood, but nobody paid any attention.

"I had to get on the ball," Norm said. "Think fast. Figure out a way to come up with some money, pronto."

"What happened?" Ralph asked.

Norm looked at Ralph, then down at Ralph's fingers with the attached butter knives, as if he hadn't noticed them until this very second. He turned to me, squinting, raising his cigarette to his mouth for another deep puff. "Just what the hell are you guys supposed to be, anyway?"

Ralph said, "I'm an Etruscan."

"And I'm Gene Simmons," I said. "From KISS."

"The Etruscans," Norm said. "I never heard of those guys. They must be new. But KISS -" He snorted. "That's sissy shit. You should've gone as Robert Plant. Or Jimmy Page. Or somebody from Blue Öyster Cult. Now, that I'd have respected."

Then Norm put the car in drive and peeled out.

The longer we sat in the car, the more I thought of Patty O'Dell wearing nothing but panties, and the more I thought of Patty O'Dell, the more I had to cross and uncross my legs.

Norm wheeled quickly into the parking lot of a ratty complex called Royal Chateau Apartments and said, "Give me a few minutes, guys. If the deal goes through, we'll party. If not, I'm screwed. Big time." He opened the door and got out. He slammed the door so hard, my ears popped.

Ralph turned around and said, "How's it going back there?"

I gave him the thumbs-up.

Ralph said, "Let's take a look and see what he's got in the trunk."

"I don't think that's a good idea," I said.

"C'mon," Ralph said. "Pretend you're Gene Simmons. What would he do in a situation like this?"

I leaned my head back and stuck my tongue all the way out, but the bun on top of my wig flopped over, cutting short my impression. A pin, apparently, had fallen out.

"I got the Krazy Glue with me," Ralph said.


Excerpted from The Book of Ralph by John McNally Copyright © 2004 by John McNally. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John McNally is the author of two novels, The Book of Ralph and America's Report Card, and a short story collection, Troublemakers. His next book, Ghosts of Chicago, a collection of short stories, will be published this fall. A native of Chicago, he lives with his wife, Amy, in North Carolina, where he is associate professor of English at Wake Forest University. The first word he ever spoke was "Batman," who has remained, in his darker incarnations, his favorite superhero. John's first creative work, a play written in the fourth grade, featured an overweight superhero who gets stuck inside a phone booth while changing into his costume. He is happy to return to the genre, albeit thirty-four years later.

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The Book of Ralph 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
bookaholicSS More than 1 year ago
This has got to be one of the funniest, laugh out loud books I have ever read! I am from the southside of Chicago, growing up in the 70s and boy could I relate to the hangouts, school, cars, houses, kids, etc... Awesome writing and filled with guffaws!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is fabulously funny! I laughed out loud often. I have a very sarcastic sense of humor, and this book had me doubled over laughing, so it would especially be recommended for people with that sense of humor. It wasn't a hard read by any means, but totally enjoyable and worth the money.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first read the short story 'Book of Ralph' in a copy of the Idaho Review, a yearly journal of short stories. The writing was simplistic yet captured my attention: it was the first story I ever read twice in one sitting. I spoke with the editor of the Idaho Review, and he said that 'The Book of Ralph' was the first story ever submitted to recieve a unanimous vote from the editors--they loved the warmth that comes from its mesh of humor, reality, and remorse. The book, 'The Book of Ralph,' is a novel in stories--a collection of short stories that can be read individually, or taken as a whole to form an overarching story. There are a few instances when the narrator repeats himself, such as explaining that Ralph has been hald back a few grades, but these instances are minor and are used to keep the stories relatively independent of each other. Other than that, the flow is seemless. My only regret was that the book couldn't go on forever.