The Book of Ralph
by John McNally
Published by Free Press
287 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Chris Gsell
There was always that kid you remember from your childhood who stood out from the others. Not because they were smarter, prettier, friendlier or popular. He or she stood out for different reasons. They were the ones that seemed older than everyone else, more mature and very rough around the edges. They were always talking back to the teacher, constantly staying after school and you watched them from a safe distance, wondering about the lives they led. They were shrouded in obscurity. John McNally remembers this and vividly captures such a person in his new novel, The Book of Ralph.
Mostly taking place in the late 1970s, The Book of Ralph is a tale about two unlikely friends. The narrator, Hank, is your typical preteen, doing just enough to get by in order to graduate from the eighth grade. Then there is Ralph. He has already been held back, twice, and holds complete apathy for authority, rules and morality. The two of them form a bond that brings the reader into the audacious life of Ralph. As a result, McNally's novel becomes a sort of twisted coming-of-age tale centering on two very diverse boys.
Told through the eyes of Hank, the reader follows the adventures and misadventures of Hank and Ralph as they get ready to graduate from the eighth grade. McNally's book dedicates most of its pages to their last year in grammar school, both in and outside the classroom. They traverse through the streets of southwest Chicago, Hank always the participant in Ralph's mysterious and shady world. Remember that safe distance you had from these types of people growing up? Here, McNally brings Ralph uncomfortably close, giving the reader a delicious and guilty look into one such esoteric life.
While The Book of Ralph has some problems, it's a mostly excellent read. For me, the largest problem with McNally's novel was the end. In the last section of the book, McNally jumps ahead to the year 2001. A lot happens in the last 80 pages, enough subject matter for a whole other book. As a result, McNally's novel ends up feeling rushed and out of place. The rest of the book is so perfectly paced that this last section screams of hurriedness. Also, everything wraps up a little too conveniently in the end. It doesn't seem plausible and taints an otherwise credible story. Had McNally omitted this entire section, I feel the novel would have felt more complete and could have finished on a high note, leaving it to the reader's imagination what the future held for the two boys. A risk, in my opinion, worth taking.
The balance of The Book of Ralph is terrific. The book is not so much about Ralph as it is about Hank and his odd relationship with Ralph. Their friendship seems unlikely at first but quickly grows legs. As a result, Hank and Ralph make for a hilarious time together. Hank is always questioning Ralph's motives and Ralph could care less. He's always off in his own world consisting of "Revenge Lists" and easy ways to make money. Hank is just along for the ride, however bumpy. He is smart enough to step back when Ralph goes too far, but stays close enough to satisfy his curiosity about Ralph's world.
McNally captures the true essence of an eighth grade boy. He captures images that most of us can recall or at least relate to. Our first job, fights with our siblings and crushes on teachers are depicted here with all the innocence that youth allows. Hank gets his first real job working at a record store. What seemed like a dream job at first, quickly turns into a laborious chore. The reader watches as Hank's views on working for a living turn jaded. It was one of my favorite parts of the book, one of many of Hank's incidents I could relate to.
The more he hangs out with Ralph, the less Hank learns about him. He sees Ralph with his two older cousins, cruising the streets all the time. He takes odd jobs with Ralph and meets him at the mall to hang out. But he's never been inside Ralph's house or even seen his mother. Yet the imperfect balance between these two boys fit perfectly. Ralph, in his loutish way of saying and doing things, always has kind words for Hank's family and even a few touching moments, in a Ralph sort of way, for Hank. Ralph respects Hank's father, has a crush on Hank's older sister and sympathizes with his grandmother -- all people Ralph had barely ever talked with. He seems grounded in Hank's tight family unit. A unit, in Hank's eyes, that isn't as pretty as it seems.
Furthermore, Hank and Ralph, although they would never admit it out loud, need each other. Hanging out with Ralph, Hank suddenly gains respect among his peers. And Hank keeps Ralph, to a certain extent, in check. Ralph stays grounded by hanging out with Hank. Had he not met Hank, Ralph could have easily landed in jail or dropped out of school. Their friendship works because here, opposites attract in the most fundamental of ways. The Book of Ralph is a highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable book. | May 2004
Chris Gsell lives in South Jersey. By day he works for an ad agency, at night he enjoys reading and writing about books.