Sucker punched. Having something come out of the blue and smack you upside the head just when you think you have a solid grip on the way things are going. And that's how I felt, two thirds of the way through this wonderful book by John McNally.
The Book Of Ralph starts out innocently enough, fast short chapters detailing the strange relationship between Ralph, a twice-held-back grade school student and Hank, the eleven-year-old narrator of this tale. Hank is too polite, or perhaps too intimidated, to extract himself from what becomes an increasingly uncomfortable situation. Ralph's not necessarily a troublemaker, but he's a boy who reeks of the possibility of trouble.
Ralph is always looking for easy money, and one day he shows Hank his special price list that details how much he charges for a broken arm ($10), a black eye ($5), an ear chewed off ($15), and murder ($100). The list has been copied from a book on the gangs in New York City during the 1880's and Ralph notes, "I thought about raising the prices, but after thinking about it all summer, I finally decided to keep them the same. It'll be part of my selling point; 1978 service at 1880 prices!"
Hank is from a semi-dysfunctional blue collar family, with a father whose kindness is marred by a level of brightness that can only be described as dim. With Hank in tow, he prowls dumpsters and the neighbor's garbage cans looking for items suitable to use as Christmas decorations for a local contest. Ralph looks at the finished product and sees a Picasso-like artistry in the whole affair, and tells Hank that his father is a genius. Hank looks at his house again, and then relates:
As best as I could tell, Dad's vision was this: Christmas gave everyone a good beating—the way the flattened reindeer leaned against the TV antenna... or the trolls... they appeared to be climbing down the drainpipe at the corners of the house, as if escaping the long hours of Santa's workshop. It was chilling. I found myself wanting to weep right there at both the beauty and the sadness of it all.
Hank's mother struggles to keep the finances together, as her husband looks to spend their meager resources on whatever technological fad goes on sale at the local mall. Hank's big sister treats him with aloof disdain, certain that Hank was put on earth for one reason only, to embarrass her in front of her friends. They are not particularly close, and this seems to be no big loss for Hank.
As the story progresses you begin to realize that Ralph isn't all that stupid, he just has a different view of reality, one that fits in well with the lower middle class neighborhood, its factory and power-line panoramas, and the hot-rod-driving dropouts who prowl the mean streets of south side Chicago. From his uncles who steal trunkloads of Tootsie Rolls from the factory where they work (to sell on the black market), to Hank's grandmother being arrested for shoplifting (shoes, dozens of pairs), every page of this book holds fascinating jaunts into a world you never want to visit.