Green Grass Grace

A Novel

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About The Book

Henry "Hank" Toohey, a thirteen-year-old altar boy, is an incessant smart-ass with a deep love of life...and other four-letter words. But with his foul mouth comes a heart of gold, and he's going to need it to get through the last weekend of summer 1984.
Everyone up and down St. Patrick Street, Henry's claustrophobic Irish-Catholic block in Philadelphia -- with its seventy-eight row homes, seventy-eight skinny mile-high lawns, seventy-eight statues of saints, and seventy-eight Mondale-Ferraro signs -- knows that the Toohey family is falling apart. Henry's mailman father is having an affair with a neighbor lady right under his mother's nose. His big brother has been a drunken mess since his girlfriend died. And his little sister is counting on him to keep her laughing through it all. But Henry has a plan to pull the family back together: He'll propose to his chain-smoking fourteen-year-old girlfriend, Grace McClain, at a neighborhood wedding. To prepare, he and his ragtag group of friends pinball around the streets, making elaborate plans for his proposal, riding bikes, rating breasts, bothering the local merchants, talking trash about Mike Schmidt and Bob Seger, and kissing behind the seafood-store dumpster.
Gritty, giddy, and bursting with Henry's boundless energy, Green Grass Grace is a heart-thumping rocket ride back to adolescence that is riotously funny and tragic at the same time.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Hellfire hallelujah and halitosis. Mike Schmidt sits to pee.

How you doing, fuckface? My name's Henry Tobias Toohey. I love Jesus, rock and roll, and Grace McClain but not in that order. Can I get an amen? Can I get a witness? I come to you in the Holy Name of God, Yahweh, the Big Finger, the Eye in the Sky, He Be Who Be. He came to me in a vision and gave me a mission of love. He said: Henry, make Grace your wife. Sing to her and propose marriage in front of a wedding reception crowd. Do it for her love, for your parents to fall back in love, and for your depressed older brother to snap out of his sad sleep. Is that all, Big Fella? Not a problem. Your Will Be Done.

Good morning, St. Patrick Street. Good morning, Philadelphia. City of brotherly love. City of dead-end and one-way streets. A blossoming metropolis, center of commerce, magnet of opportunity for criminals both organized and unorganized. Home of the Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, and Eagles, in that fucking order. Good morning, Americas North, South, Latin, and Central. Good morning, Canada. Good morning, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Honduras, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Australia, Ireland, Japan, China, Appalachia, Chile, Mexico, Upper Mongolia, Outer Mongolia, Lower Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Inside-Out Mongolia, Upside-Down Mongolia. I leave anybody out? Tough break, fuckheads.

It's a perfect Friday morning on the last weekend of summer vacation, 1984. The sun punches through the NFL curtains on the window of the bedroom I share with my older brother, Stephen Joseph Toohey, who's eighteen and a drunk. Stephen sleeps below me on the bottom bunk. He's snoring loud, has puke on his pillow, and most likely doesn't remember last night's fistfight with our dad, Francis Nathaniel Toohey Junior.

Stephen and Francis Junior have made late-night fights a family tradition. Fight Night with the Tooheys, every night. In this corner, standing five-nine, weighing a buck fifty, looking lost to everybody, is the underdog, Stephen Toohey. The Pug with the Lonely Mug. In the opposite corner, standing five-seven, weighing a buck eighty, and having more hair on his back than on his head is our champion, Francis Nathaniel Toohey Junior. Francis the Fighting Mailman.

I want a clean fight, fellas. No rabbit punches no clinches. Keep quiet so the neighbors don't call the cops again, so Cecilia Regina Toohey Senior and Cecilia Regina Toohey Junior, AKA Cece, don't cry. Please refrain from punching Francis Nathaniel Toohey III when he comes inside the living room from his house next door to break up the brawl. Most important, keep the action away from the television, which has recently been equipped with cable. Knocking over a cable television is more of a mortal sin than pissing in a priest's chalice, so if you have to knock over furniture try a coffee table or armchair.

My Philadelphia Phillies alarm clock says ten-thirty. Damn. I'm supposed to meet my best pal Bobby James now. I'm not worried, though. I'll be down there in an hour after I get dressed and comb my hair. Before I do anything, though, I have to deal with Mike Schmidt. I guess I should explain who he is in case you are either A) a broad or B) a fella who plays with dollies. Mike Schmidt plays third for the Phillies and is my mortal enemy for reasons I don't care to discuss right now due to personal inner pain. I'm trying to get on with my life since the Incident. Bull's-eye. The spitball I shoot at his poster hits him square in his big honker, the fucker, next to hundreds of other spitballs. I do this every morning. It's therapy. I'm already feeling better.

f0

I walk down the hallway toward my parents' bedroom straight ahead, past Cece's bedroom and the bathroom, heading for Cecilia Toohey's records. Her collection, like my hair, is spectacular. She owns every album made between 1950 and 1979. Stacks of LPs line the walls, and 45s are stuffed in spilling cabinets. I go to the 45s -- won't be time to hear an album. What do I feel like? Here we go: "Let It Hang Out (Let It All Hang Out)" by the Hombres. Good tune. I pull it out of the sleeve and walk to the record player in Cece's room, where our band, Phillies Alarm Clock, practices. I drop the needle. The song starts with a sermon. It also has handclaps. I dance and sing along in my white underwear. Tell me the truth: have you ever seen such rhythm in a honky? Say yeah. Make me laugh.

"Henry, shut the fuck up and turn that down," yells Stephen from his bed.

I lower the volume, stop singing, and do the hustle backwards to the bathroom. I'm at the mirror as the Hombres keep singing. A quick check for armpit hair reveals none. No stubble on the face either. Fuck a duck, I'm thinking, as Stephen staggers into the bathroom, kneels in front of the bowl, and pukes.

"Yo. Henry, there's something wrong with you. You know that, don't you?"

Stephen has bright green eyes, even when he pukes in the bowl after a bender. His black hair is a wet, spiked mess. He's five-nine, handsome, but not like I am. Far as handsome goes, I'm in my own freaking league. Ask any broad, or me.

"Yo. How do you figure?" I ask, as I soak my head under the sink faucet.

"Where would I start? The music. The hair combing. The preaching." He pukes.

"I wasn't preaching. That was part of the record. I was singing along, jerk-off."

"Maybe so," he says, "but I have heard you repeating stuff TV preachers say."

"So what?" I ask. "They're funny. Don't you think so?"

I watch preachers on cable and dig their clothes and hairstyles. If I'm not watching preachers, it's stand-up comedians. Same thing, really, except comedians have bad hair or bald heads and can't dress for shit, the fucks.

"I wouldn't know," he says. "I don't watch them." Puke.

"Don't know what you're missing," I tell him.

"If you say so," he says. "I like it better when you imitate the stand-up comedy."

"I don't imitate nobody, you fucking fuckball. Stay here," I say, then walk pissed to our bedroom and open my top dresser drawer, where a box protects Big Green, my comb. Once I open the lid, remove a brown bag, unzip a sandwich bag, and unroll a wad of tissue, Big Green, a bad unbreakable motherfucker, appears. "What's up, pal?" I say. Yeah, I talk to my comb. Fuck you. Big Green, a man of action, says nothing. I walk him to the bathroom, where Stephen now sleeps on the rim of the bowl. He put on fifteen pounds since he left high school last June with a diploma he'll need to cover his head when he's sleeping on the street in the rain, which is what Francis Junior has been threatening him with.

Stephen started drinking a year ago after his girlfriend Megan died in a car crash up the block. Then he quit football a month later, for his senior year. His grades dropped. His personality disappeared. He was always funny before. He made everybody laugh, he made everybody feel better about themselves, about life, especially me. He was my hero. He always stepped in to stop a bullshit fight with a couple jokes. He was never not smiling. A room buzzed when he showed up. Then Megan died and the bottom dropped out on him. Francis Junior got involved, and it's been downhill from there. Stephen drinks, comes home, throws hands with Francis Junior, and passes out. He wakes up the next day, pukes in the toilet, falls asleep on the toilet, wakes up, and asks me questions about the night before, which he doesn't remember.

"Henry, you seen Daddy this morning?" asks Stephen.

"No," I say. "Ain't seen him since you two fought last night."

"What?" he asks. "When did we fight?"

"You're kidding, right?"

"No. I remember coming in and having a hard time climbing the stairs."

I rub two globs of gel into my hair. Next, I comb the hair straight back. I'm ready to make a part in the middle, but I want to tell Stephen what the fuck happened last night. I can only do one at a time. It wouldn't be fair to Stephen or the hair otherwise.

"You did have trouble getting up the stairs," I say.

"Yeah, see, I told you," he says, relieved.

"Daddy and Frannie carried you upstairs. You were out cold. So you could say you had a hard or easy time, depending on how you look at it."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"Daddy go after me or I go after him?" he asks.

"I don't know," I tell him. "I was on the top step, filling out a fight card, eating jujubees and malty balls."

"Shut up. What I say to him?"

"Don't really remember. Fuck you, fuck off, jerk-off, cocksucker. The usual."

"I mention Daddy porking Mrs. Cooney behind Mommy's back?" asks Stephen.

Francis Junior is cheating on his wife, our mom, Cecilia Regina Toohey Senior, with Mrs. Cooney, who lives across St. Patrick Street, the last house at the other end of the block. We're the last house on this side. If St. Patrick Street was a rectangle, a straight path from the Tooheys' to the Cooneys' would cut it in half into two triangles.

"No, nothing like that," I say.

"Did Mommy cry?"

"Yup."

"Shit. What else happen?"

All of a sudden I'm not up for telling him more. First off, I still haven't parted the hair. Second, I still haven't parted the hair. So I let him off easy. Mentioning the police visit or his sobbing won't do any good right now. Have to get to the hair here.

"It wasn't that bad," I say. "You knocked over some shit is about all."

"So that was it? You sure I didn't say nothing stupid in front of Mommy?"

"I'm sure. She knows anyway, don't she?"

"That don't mean you spell it out for her. There's a thing called class." He pukes.

"Look, this has been real," I say, "but I gotta fix the hair, buddy. Go back to bed."

"Yeah, I'm gonna right after this," he says, then dry heaves. "There, that's better. Have a good day, young Henry. Put some clothes on. You go out like that, broads will run from everywhere to shove dollar bills in your BVDs."

He walks back to our bedroom, moaning and muttering that life blows, in a scary-nervous voice. The idea of broads shoving bucks in my trunks excites me. Now I have a boner, standing at the bathroom mirror in my white underwear. Look at this fucking thing. I wish I knew how to get rid of them. I need to hit the library. Time to get my mind off the boner and back to the hair.

It (the hair) stiffened enough that I consider showering and shampooing so I can start from scratch, but I'm not that desperate. I'm not what you'd call a bather. I part and feather the hair -- piece of cake -- then spray. Here's a tip: when you spray your hair, don't pay attention to instructions on the can. Let it rip for three minutes straight. You want the bathroom in a cloud of haze so thick that you fart and mistake it for a foghorn. Done and done. Now that the hair's complete it's time to dress.

But first a quick review of my hair and fashion tips. Showering every day is overrated. There's no need. I stick to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Sundays are Days of the Lord, and it should be noted that vain exercises like bathing are sins. However, hair care and not bathing are only two steps to looking and feeling great.

Step three is picking an outfit that separates you from the herd. How? Simple. Avoid sports team T-shirts unless you work under cars or feed slop to pigs. Try a collared shirt with buttons like the one I'm putting on now. No one will find one as cool as mine, what with all the moose on the shirt, but the point is to find one that says you like a shirt full of moose says me. Ignore those gurgling and snorting noises Stephen makes. Choosing shorts is simple. With a moose shirt it only makes sense to wear plaid shorts. No way a broad like Grace can resist. For shoes I'll wear black sneakers with yellow racing stripes. They throw off the color scheme I got going, but it doesn't kill you if the shoes don't match the rest. Next, I tuck Big Green inside a tube sock for quick-draw access.

Finally, no outfit is complete without some article of clothing that praises Jehovah somewhere. I go low-key with scapulars, which are like two cloth stamps with pictures of saints attached to shoestrings. You wear scapulars like a double necklace, half in front, half in back. And here's the beautiful thing: scapulars are a get-out-of-Hell-free card, guaranteed. You die wearing scapulars, you go straight to Heaven, no questions asked.

For instance, say today I go outside, hijack a bus, and, I don't know, run over old ladies with walkers. Then I get off the bus and empty the change out of their purses. I take that money, go to the bar, get drunk. At the bar, I start an argument with a fella about who's better looking, me or Bobby Redford. He says me by a little. I say me by a lot. I go back outside, get behind the bus wheel, come through the bar wall, and run him over. I take money out of his wallet, walk over to the juke, and punch up the song "Old Time Rock & Roll" by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. I sit back down, order another drink, and start another argument with another fella about who's tougher, me or Bobby De Niro. He says De Niro by a little. I say De Niro by a lot. I end that argument also by running him the fuck over with the bus.

I settle in for another drink. De Niro walks in the bar, sits down next to me, orders a shot, and knocks it back like the badass he is. He squints and asks, You talking about me? Were you talking about me? I tell him Yeah, but I was saying good things, Bobby. He isn't buying that shit. He pulls out a big-ass Mob gun, blows me full of holes. I'm dead but wearing scapulars. After all that, the question is, do scapulars save me from Hell? Yes and no. Ordinarily I'd go straight to Heaven, even if I passed through the Pearly Gates holding the bus steering wheel and a cold beer.

But we forgot the worst sin of all. Worse than murder, or missing Mass even. I played Bob Seger on a juke. Even God can't forgive that shit.

The living room is a mess. A lamp lays on the floor next to the overturned coffee table and spilt magazines. Plastic covers on the sofa and love seat aren't fastened firmly. At least the television and cable box are safe. I grab the remote off the cable box and push the power button. It's the usual shit heap: talk shows that'd be funnier if folks fistfought, music videos with German jerk-offs playing pianos like guitars, cooking shows hosted by fat broads, black-and-white reruns, soap operas, and game shows. Finally I find a Jesus channel, where a preacher with high Elvis hair, ruffled shirt, and powder blue tuxedo holds the fat hands of a whale woman with tits like two waterbeds. The whale woman with the waterbed tits blubbers. She lost Jesus somewhere but found Him again, praise God. The preacher smiles and sweats. The audience applauds and shouts shit. I flick off the TV. Then back on. Then back off. On once more. Off again. I love this remote.

Outside, a dog growls, and a man yells in pain. I run to the front porch, where my dog Gwen Flaggart is biting the mailman, who's also my dad, Francis Nathaniel Toohey Junior. Francis Junior calls Flaggart a fat bitch as she chomps his ankle.

"Yo, Dad," I say. "Got a package for me today?"

Me and Bobby James placed an order in the back of MAD Magazine for a ton of shit including, but not limited to, plastic dog doo, trick gum, smoke pellets, and a hovercraft. We're going to ride the hovercraft to school. Hovercrafts get chicks.

"Yo, Henry," he says. "What? You talking about this?"

He pulls a small brown box out of his stuffed mailbag and hands it to me while Flaggart growls and bites. He points his dog spray at her and lets go with the juice. Bam. Flaggart, one ugly bitch, rolls on her back, runs her paws over her eyes, and sneezes, her yellow fangs looking almost like a smile.

"Get her in the house before I kill her, Henry," he says.

I open the door and he kicks her in the ass. Inside, she bitch-strolls over to Gene, our other dog, who's sleeping. Gene wakes up, spots Flaggart, and moves. Flaggart sits down in his warm lost place. Me and Francis Junior stay outside on the porch.

"Henry, is Stephen still asleep upstairs?" he asks.

"Nah," I say, "he was awake."

"How's he doing?"

"Not too good. He's puking."

"I figured that. I meant did he seem upset? Sad?"

"Yeah, but he's always that," I say.

"I know," replies Francis Junior, who looks exactly like Stephen with a gut, less hair, a fatter face, and dark circles under his eyes.

"He mentioned going down to Community College today," I lie.

"Did he? Wow," says Francis Junior. "Maybe something I said sunk in."

"Yeah, OK, Dad," I say, patient, although he's dumb to think that.

"You understand my point about school and shit, don't you?"

"Sure."

Up the street, Bobby James pokes his fat head out his door and looks toward my house but is too blind to spot me from this far. This is good because if he saw me he'd throw a hissy fit. Once he goes back inside, the phone rings behind me.

"I gotta stay on his shit now, Henry," says Francis Junior. "He's drifting. Can't let one heartbreak break you, goddammit. Life blows, that's a fact, but it moves on and you have to too. He should play ball and go to college. You too. I don't want you lugging junk mail and running from dogs. You're both too smart for that."

"I hear you, brother," I say.

"Stop being funny. I'm serious now. This job ain't easy," he answers, a faraway look in his eyes. This means he's launching into a speech, which he has to stop here and there to answer questions about the mail from the neighbors. "Henry, I just want to see you get more than I got out of life -- Hello, Mildred, yes your Reader's Digest came in, I'll be right there -- I was working at the Post Office when I was sixteen, Henry, I only got a break from that to go to Vietnam -- Harry, that insurance check didn't come today, I'll keep looking for it, I promise -- your brother ain't thinking straight and will kick himself later for bad decisions he makes now -- Eunice, I'll be there in two minutes, for crying out loud, you toothless old coot -- you're even smarter than Stephen; I won't let you refill water glasses at catering halls when you could be reading important books at college, chasing skirts, away from all this noise and nonsense. I can't let Stephen throw everything away because his high school sweetheart died. I carried my baby brother dead out of my own house when I was seventeen and he was seven. I had work the next day. I went. Life was waiting. If I gotta fight your brother to keep him on this planet, I will, goddammit -- Yes, my own dog bit me, Mike -- look, I have to go before these people light torches and chase me down for the mail. Your hair looks fine; you can put that thing away. Listen, what are you doing with yourself today?"

"The usual," I say. "Hanging with Bobby James. Looking for chicks and loose change. Professing my love for Yahweh out loud."

I always say shit like this because he doesn't listen.

"Write your mom a note, OK?" he says. "And behave. You got any money?"

"Do I ever?"

He pulls out his wallet, which has three ripped one-dollar bills. He hands me two, looks at the last bill, then hands me that too. "Here," he says.

"Thanks, pal."

"Don't mention it."

"Dad," I say, switching gears, "why would a fella pork another broad behind his wife's back?"

"What?" he asks, almost jumping out of his sneaks before dropping his bag to bend down and retie them and not look at me. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason," I say. "Somebody mentioned it the other day up at the playground."

"Who were they talking about?"

"I forget. Not you."

"I wasn't thinking me," he says, standing up, putting his bag back on his shoulder.

"I know," I say. "But you'd be a punk to do that, right?"

"Yeah, something like that. Look, I gotta move. Be good today."

"You too."

Francis Junior leaves to finish the street, climbing porch railings with his legs windmilling like he's a gymnast. I watch him for a minute, then walk back in the house, find a pen and paper, and write, "Ma, I went out. I'll be back. Yours in Christ, Henry." Cecilia will laugh at that. She likes Jesus jokes. I click off the television with the remote, then turn it on and off again. Remote controls. Wow. It's five minutes to noon. The phone rings in the kitchen. Stephen pukes and moans upstairs. The needle scratches at the 45 I never turned off. I step out into the sweet summer air. The sunshine hits me with the warmth of Yahweh's infinite love.

Copyright © 2003 by Shawn McBride

Reading Group Guide

A TOUCHSTONE
READING GROUP GUIDE

GREEN GRASS GRACE
Discussion Points
1. In a rapid staccato style salted with curses and slang, Henry Toohey brings his own story to life in Green Grass Grace. How would you describe the book's tone and language -- and, by association, Henry? Did the writing style or Henry remind you of any other books or characters?
2. Why do you think the author chose to set the novel in 1984? How does this time period shape these characters and their outlook? How might this neighborhood have been different if the story had been set in the present day?
3. In what ways could this Philadelphia neighborhood be seen as a character in its own right? What's the personality of the neighborhood? How are the troubles that Henry's family is experiencing characteristic of -- or distinct from -- the problems facing the entire community?
4. Even more than most teenagers, Henry is very concerned about his personal style. Describe the image he's crafted for himself. Do you think other characters see him the same way he sees himself?
5. While Henry presents himself as wise beyond his thirteen years, his romantic and idealistic take on the world doesn't always match reality. In what instances does he accidentally reveal his naivete? How has he changed by the story's end? Do you think he'll lose his romantic optimism as he grows up?
6. How does the author use humor -- especially in describing Henry and his friends' boys-will-be-boys exploits -- to lighten the more serious elements of the story?
7. When his father denies point-blank the question about whether he's having an affair, Henry thinks, "For the first time in my life...I watch him with sadness and something less than complete love. He lied right to my face, and the whole year of him letting me down, letting us down, hits me at once" (169). Why does this incident have such an impact on Henry?
8. Why do you think Francis Jr. is having such a hard time being a good husband and father? What expectations did he have for his life, and how have things turned out differently? Why has Stephen's depression hit him so hard?
9. Each time Henry and his friends visit a shop in their neighborhood, they are treated to the shop's brand new TV commercial. What do these commercials add to the color of the novel?
10. All of the action of the story is set in just a few days' time -- the last few days of summer vacation. Why is this time frame especially appropriate and meaningful?
11. What role does the Catholic Church play in the story? Does the irreverence with which it is sometimes portrayed -- the character of Father S. Thomas Alminde, for instance -- undermine its influence, or is the church actually a positive force in these characters' lives?
12. Henry reflects that it "could as easily be 1963" (58) in his neighborhood. He later explains, "People let themselves get frozen in a bad place, lost in space, until they get used to it and can't change. They bury the best of their love beneath a pile of stubborn bullshit, losing chances, wasting time, missing life" (249). For which characters is this description most fitting? How did this neighborhood become so depressed, so trapped in the past? What makes Henry the right person to shake things up?
13. Why do you think the author chose Green Grass Grace as the book's title?
14. All of Henry's idealism and optimism coalesces in his plan to propose to Grace, pull Stephen from his blues, and save his parents' marriage. Were you surprised when his elaborate designs fell apart? What was wrong with his plan?
15. Although the events of the wedding reception transpire far differently from the way Henry had imagined, they do point the way to real change for the Toohey family. What challenges does this family still face, and how do you think things might be different for them in the future?

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (March 4, 2003)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743223119

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Raves and Reviews

Richard Russo author of Empire Falls The last time I had this much fun in the company of an adolescent was when Ferris Bueller took a day off. Shawn McBride is a hoot and a half.

Dwight Allen author of The Green Suit and Judge Shawn McBride fills the pages of his novel with dizzying verbal slapstick and inspired silliness while also making us care about his feather-haired, motor-mouth protagonist and his fractured family.

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