The south side gets no respect. The White Sox have the best record in the major leagues and can’t fill the Cell; the Cubs are sub-.500 and still pack Wrigley Field. Maybe it’s the same with novels: Adam Langer’s recent Crossing California, set in Rogers Park, got loads of press, and John McNally’s 2004 chronicle of a southwest-side childhood, The Book of Ralph (Free Press), didn’t–a shame, because it’s a terrific book. Taking place (mostly) in the late 70s and dotted with landmarks like the Ford City Shopping Center and Duke’s Italian Beef, it tracks the unlikely friendship between eighth graders Hank and Ralph–unlikely because 13-year-old Hank is a B-plus student while 15-year-old Ralph (he’s been held back a couple times) is the kind of kid who passes out a for-hire hit list: “Punching $2 . . . Ear chawed off 15.” Ralph pulls Hank into ever more troublesome schemes, and their ensuing bond pays off in unexpected ways when they meet up 20 years later. Though a coming-of-age tale, the novel also makes clear the ways in which we never really grow up. McNally depicts the embarrassments and cruelties of teenagers with empathy, and he nails adolescent boys’ rising interest in girls–Hank browses the record stores for Roxy Music albums “because there were naked women on them.” And Ralph is one of my all-time favorite comic characters; a guy just like him went to my school, probably yours too. McNally, who grew up in southwest suburban Burbank but now lives in North Carolina, is in town to promote the paperback release of The Book of Ralph. Wed 5/25, noon-2 PM, Columbia College Bookstore, 624 S. Michigan, 312-427-4860. Thu 5/26, 7 PM, Prairie Trails Public Library, 8449 S. Moody, Burbank, 708-430-3688. See next week’s Reader for more appearances.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ken Bennett.