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Book Club Wed Feb 11 2009

March 2009 Selection: The Book of Ralph by John McNally

Hank Boyd is in fifth grade when he first meets Ralph. Known for that fact he's been held back for two years, and later given the legacy of being the oldest student to graduate from their school, Ralph is the sort of student who finds himself passed around from teacher to teacher, from the librarian to the principal, yet seems barely conscious of the emotional havoc he's wreaking. Hank has no interest in befriending the odd boy who he remembers as always having had the sproutings of a moustache, but three years later, when this book begins, it would seem that Hank and Ralph have been an inseparable pair for all of their short years.

The Book of Ralph is Hank's story of a tumultuous childhood with a far from well-meaning friend. Shortly after we meet Ralph, he presents Hank with an unusual price list: "Punching - $2; Ear chawed off - $15; Doing the big job (murder) - $100 and up." While Hank is appalled that the list is composed on the back of a torn off page from a library book, Ralph is proud of his carefully written out list of services, crowing, "You won't find it any cheaper." But the list, and the fact that Ralph actually accepts money for the services on this list, is just the beginning of the debauchery the year will bring Hank. From a grandmother who's arrested for stealing shoes to a teen-controlled X-rated CB radio channel to a junk-filled Christmas display on his family's lawn, debauchery enters Hank's life from every side, with or without Ralph.

But, this one year that consumes more than half the book brings much more than this simple, comedic loss of innocence. It is also a year in which Hank witnesses the potential dissolution of his family, one in which he is hired for his first job and learns the dubious ways of shady businessmen, one in which he learns a little bit more about sex than he would have wished, and one, at the end of which, he and Ralph will part ways. His continuing friendship with Ralph is something Hank reconsiders often: "There were pluses to both sides. With Ralph, no one would mess with me; they'd know better. Without Ralph, I might stay alive longer, and my chances of doing any serious jail time would be kept to a minimum. There were the benefits, short- and long-term, and though the decision should have been easy, I knew it wasn't going to be. I liked Ralph. That was the sad part."

Of course, the story does not end there, at Hank's eighth grade graduation. In a coda set 21 years in the future, Hank and Ralph meet again under strange circumstances, only to embark on even stranger endeavors. In this period Hank will reunite with his grade school classmates and ignite the relationships that were just beginning to bud in their prepubescent lives. He will come to depend on Ralph far much more than he would have ever expected - or perhaps even wanted - all those years ago. And he will find himself in situations far more bizarre, and of far more consequence, than he did in those grade school days. Hank's adult life bears a distant resemblance to the futuristic 2001 that both he and Ralph were assigned to create in that fateful fifth grade class, but the one constant is that the two are as inseparable as ever. It is a coming of age story, a tragedy and a buddy comedy rolled into one - a fitting combination for the story of two teenage boys growing up in 1970s Chicago who rediscover each other in their not so grown up adult lives.

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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