"America's Report Card"
(Reviewed by Tony Ross SEP 30, 2006)
Once again, McNally comes out with a nice book which doesn't seem to be getting the attention from the public that it deserves. I first came across his work in his solid debut short story collection Troublemakers; and his subsequent novel, The Book of Ralph, was one of my favorite reads of 2004.
I suspect that this latest book is perhaps suffering from an altogether bland cover, one that gives no indication as to the story inside nor any clue as to the tone. Hopefully the publisher will commission a full redesign for the paperback so that McNally's entertaining writing gets the packaging it deserves.
In any event, set in the summer before the 2004 presidential election, the story follows two separate protagonists. Charlie Wolf has just completed a useless Masters in Film Studies at the University of Iowa and is settling into a leisurely summer with his sexy Russian girlfriend. The couple take hourly wage jobs as test scorers with the massive corporation who runs the titular high school standardized exam. McNally once worked as a tester for such a company, and thus has plenty of ammo for a fairly wicked satire of the Dilbert/Office Space sweatshop inanities of such a workplace. Meanwhile, outside of Chicago, 17-year-old Jainey struggles to cope with her family life (father in jail, mother in a nicotine-fueled fugue, paranoid brother barricaded in the attic). The only adult she can even partially relate to is her art teacher, a woman who is sure the government is out to kill her. When Jainey discovers the art teacher dead, she pours her fears into the essay she writes for the standardized test which is eventually read by Charlie.
For reasons I don't wish to spoil, Charlie and Jainey meet and become allies of sorts. Without giving anything away, the story takes them deep into X-Files turf as they contemplate the notion that the bland standardized tests have a nefarious purpose. This plot element meshes somewhat with a somewhat awkward satire of the post 9/11 Bush administration. While it's refreshing to see such an unabashedly political stance (cf. the dedication to Ann Coulter, "America's Iago), this aspect would have benefited from a somewhat lighter touch. For example, Jainey discovers her art teacher's final project, a life-sized Osama Bin Laden dummy whose face peels off to reveal that of George Bush -- not exactly subtle. However, to be fair to McNally, satire is probably the hardest thing for a writer to pull off without it seeming forced, and at least he's stabbing his pen in the right direction. As usual, his characters are flawed and sympathetic souls you can completely root for, and there's a great sense of humor behind it all. Good stuff which hopefully more people will start to check out.
- Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews
"The Book of Ralph"
(Reviewed by Tony Ross SEP 30, 2006)
Several years ago I came across McNally's short-story collection Troublemakers, and enjoyed it immensely. Three of the stories from that collection (The Vomitorium, Smoke, The Grand Illusion) reappear here in slightly different form as chapters, and almost every other chapter has appeared in various lit journals or alternative media. Indeed the book is really an anthology of related stories about one character which share a tone that mixes humor, pathos, and keen observation. Those looking for a strong narrative framework may be disappointed, but this free-form approach allows McNally to create a series of extremely strong stories that form a very compelling coming of age story.
The book is about Hank, a 13-year-old kid growing up in southwest Chicago in the late '70s, and develops his friendship with Ralph, who is two years older. Hank is a prototypical lower-middle class white kid, average grades, unremarkable looks, dead center in the pecking order, and nothing to distinguish himself except being friends with Ralph. Ralph, on the other hand, is known throughout the junior high and neighborhood as someone to avoid at all costs. Without firm parental authority at home, he's turned into a bit of a bully and small-time juvenile delinquent, but is also wildly imaginative, and constantly dreaming up bizarre schemes to raise money and extract revenge on the world. Their friendship is unlikely, and Hank ascribes it to an innate politeness. From their first encounter, Hank has always been too polite to reject Ralph, and so he becomes a kind of default sidekick. This creates a tension that runs throughout the first section: will Hank ever be able to break free of Ralph, or will he get caught up in and dragged down by the effects of the older boy's wildness?
The book's style is very direct and full of satirical and deadpan humor. Hank and Ralph are vivid fictional versions of instantly recognizable types that will be familiar to anyone who's spent their early teen years in America. Beyond Hank and Ralph, most of the supporting characters are equally vivid. Hank's father is a factory worker at the 3M plant who's always drinking and thinking about how the world is trying to screw him over. Hank's sister Kelly is a sardonic mystery who can't wait to grow up and move on to her real life. Ralph's 20ish cousin Norm and his best-friend Kenny are the quintessential Midwestern metalhead hoodlums who hang out with younger kids and inexplicably involve them in their own bizarre schemes.
The first thirteen chapters (over half the book), are set in that late '70s period, and are only connected in time and place, with little if any linkage between stories. Topics include a scheme to sell a trunk full of stolen Tootsie Rolls, Hank's kleptomaniac grandmother, a creepy ex-hippie record store owner, Hank's father's attempt to win a neighborhood Christmas decoration contest using salvaged junk, a trip to the shopping center, a trip to the drive-in, a trip across town to spy on an alleged fellatrix, a day dressed up as Big Bird to promote a new auto dealership, dressing up for Halloween as Gene Simmons, trailing a nerdy collector of Star Wars cards to bite his ear off, falling in love with CB radio, and other random encounters with life. Although set in the past and ripe with period details about clothing, pop culture (Styx, Kiss, etc), and cars, this isn't particularly a nostalgia-driven story. Rather, it shares a deft sense of discovery tinged with loss of innocence, in the vein of books like Tom Perrota's Bad Haircut and Chris Fuhrman's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. At the end of the first section, the relationship between the two boys comes to its natural conclusion, and the curtain is drawn.
The book then flashes back to a brief interlude in 1975, where Hank encounters Ralph for the first time. What at first seems like an odd choice (why wouldn't this come first?), the story would lack meaning without the reader knowing the friendship that would later develop between the two boys. A final 75 pages picks up the story of Hank and Ralph in 2001, when they bump into each other on the street. This reacquaintence comes at a particularly low point for Hank, and he is rapidly drawn back into Ralph's world which hasn't changed much. Living at home and subsisting on income derived from selling fake "Made in Occupied Japan" items on eBay, and a job cleaning up crime scenes, Ralph is the same as he ever was. Soon, Hank is living a strange life as sidekick again, and is slowly trying to rebuild his life. This section is rather more madcap and improbable than the rest of the book, but it makes a hilarious and kind of sweet sense as McNally ends things on just the right note. Full of compassion and sharp-eyed wit, this work confirms the promise of McNally's first collection and leaves one anxious for more.
- Amazon readers rating: from 27 reviews
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Troublemakers: Stories (2000)
- The Book of Ralph (2004)
- America's Report Card (July 2006)
- Ghosts of Chicago : Stories (October 2008)
- High Infidelity: 24 Great Short Stories About Adultery (1997)
- The Student Body: Short Stories about College Students and Professors (2001)
- Humor Me: An Anthology of Humor by Writers of Color (2002)
- Bottom of the Ninth: Great Contemporary Baseball Short Stories (2003)
- When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School (March 2007)
(back to top)
- Official website for the John McNally
- VQR interview with John McNally
- The Elegant Variation interview with John McNally
- BookSlut review of The Book of Ralph
- Seattle PI review of America's Report Card
(back to top)
About the Author:
John McNally grew up Chicago's southwest side and studied at the University of Nebraska and is a graduate of the Iowa workshop. McNally has won the Jenny McKean Moore Fellowship at George Washington University, a Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing fellowship, a James Michener fellowship, and a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and is a past recipient of a Chesterfield Film Writer’s Project fellowship. His first collection of short fiction, Troublemakers, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award.
Presently, McNally divides his time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he’s an assistant professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and Los Angeles, where he is writing screenplays.