Troublemakers ), this enjoyable first novel is a nostalgic trip back to late 1970s suburban Chicago and the foibles of ei"/>

THE BOOK OF RALPH

John McNally, Author . Free Press $24 (287p) ISBN 978-0-7432-5555-4

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, naïveté 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.)

Reviewed on: 01/12/2004
Release date: 02/01/2004
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Paperback - 287 pages - 978-0-7432-5777-0
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