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.
Dismissed by his teachers as a lost cause, Ralph is content to move through the world a day at a time, refining his street-smarts in a never ending quest for the ultimate big money scam. He takes Hank along like a pet hamster, or a pleasant bug, something to be studied under Ralph’s microscope of life, and someone to be used as a backup player for his ever more risky adventures.
Hank is timid companion, he rarely contradicts the self-proclaimed brilliance of Ralph’s schemes, but he refuses to participate in the wilder escapades (mugging the elementary school Christmas carolers), sure that a long stretch of jail time is on the horizon if he sticks with Ralph much longer.
Right about this time I realized that this book fits my mini-farm schedule very well. Nice short chapters that can be digested during breakfast or lunch, without being so damn gripping that I’m unable to put it down and carry on with my chores. In fact, my wife asked about the book at this point and I said, “It’s good, I like it, funny stories about some kids from Chicago. It’s nice that I’m not trapped reading it all day. It’s one of those books where you can read a bit, work a bit, and then come back to it later. I’m going to have fun writing the review. Have no idea how he’s going to end it though.”
But what does Bennett know? Not much, as I was only a few pages away from one of the most brilliant transitions I have ever come across. A sudden change in story line that sucker-punched me, down goes Bennett! I was suddenly unable to stop reading this novel and damn, it was so cool!
The masterful plot shift revolves around an eighth-grade class project: “Build a Diorama Showing Your Neighborhood in The Future,” and Ralph questions the parameters of the project. “What year in the future?” Ralph asks, and, “What scale or ratio should we use?”
You get the feeling the teacher is thinking “foolish Ralph” as she hems and haws, and then arbitrarily picks the year 2001. “Ralph, you shouldn’t be worrying about these things,” she says, then, “whatever scale you think is best.” Her condescending tone lets the other kids know what she thinks of Ralph’s questions, and off they all go to build their dioramas of the future.
Weeks later, with Ralph in detention for an act of vandalism he didn’t commit, the dioramas are sitting covered with tattered sheets, towels, and the odd bedspread, ready to be unveiled. One by one the class views their classmates’ “Visions Of The Future.” Ralph’s diorama is the last to be uncovered and it’s different from all the others, and no one quite understands what they are seeing.
With that scene still fresh in your mind, you are suddenly transported to the future, Ralph’s future, Chicago 2001 as viewed from 1976. Hank has returned from Colorado where he has survived a few “adventures out west,” and immediately runs into Ralph, reuniting the two for the first time in 25 years.
With this turn of events smoothly set into place, the story dashes forward through bizarre twist after bizarre twist. Vivid and surreal visions of a future that no one could ever have expected. A future that hold challenges and opportunities for both Hank and Ralph, if they have the guts. Carpe diem!
Fascinated with its honesty, and captivated by the gritty scenes of Chicago’s south side in Ralph’s futuristic vision of 2001, I didn’t get a dammed thing done the rest of the day. I sat and traveled in time and culture, totally entertained by the clear and thoughtful writing of a man who now ranks way up on my list of “authors worthy of fame and fortune.”
It’s rare to find a new author whose writing fits your mind so well. Who takes you so deep into the story that you forget that you’re reading a book. I realize that this is different for everyone, but I think that this book holds a few universal truths about how we view the future, and the reality of how the future comes to be today, so much sooner than we would wish.
I’m delighted to find that John McNally is one of those special writers that totally captures my inner eye, filling it with scenes I never would have imagined. I’m looking forward to many years of literary escape through the workings of his extremely clever mind.
This is easily the best book I’ve read this year. Highly recommended!
To read a Blogcritics interview with John McNally, click here.
(where Hank and Ralph live forever.)