RAGE IS BACK
By Adam Mansbach
When I first came to live in New York, in 1976, I was enthralled by the graffiti in the subways. It seemed a language from some secret world beneath the city, letters that were barely letters, shaped by hands you never saw: a call to resistance, maybe, notes from the underground.
Looking at pictures of it now — particularly the graffiti scrawled inside the cars — I admit it’s hard not to see it as many of my fellow New Yorkers did then, as signs of a city out of control, defaced and defeated. But I suspect that’s an old man’s concession. Real art was written on the subway cars, and it was a sign of defiant life, not decay.
Would that the same could be said for Adam Mansbach’s fictional tribute to that vanished world, “Rage Is Back.” This is the eighth book written or edited by Mansbach, known mostly for his best-selling kids’ book satire, “Go the ____ to Sleep,” but “Rage Is Back” is uneven, flashing bits of brilliance like a beautifully burned train clacking over a few minutes of elevated rail only to vanish into a labyrinth of digressions and affectations.
The premise is straightforward enough. Mansbach’s hero and narrator, Kilroy Dondi Vance — his name a lovely amalgam of graffiti artists and subject — is a contemporary mixed-race Brooklyn teenager who has grown up without a father. To celebrate his birth, Dad, a half-Jewish graffiti star whose tag is Billy Rage, went out with his fabulous multiracial crew, “the Immortal Five,” to “bomb” the Coney Island train yard.
There, they ran smack into a brutal, graffiti-hating M.T.A. police captain, a Rudy Giuliani stand-in named Anastacio Bracken. Tragedy ensued, as the Five proved all too mortal. Their most vulnerable member, Amuse, was coldly murdered by Bracken, and others soon fell victim to suicide, prison and inexplicable blindness. Billy Rage, after a desperate two-year campaign to publicize his friend’s murder by bombing everything he can think of with the slogan BRACKEN KILLED AMUSE — including a Central Park polar bear — fled the city to parts unknown, a likely prison sentence and a $2 million civil judgment hanging over his head.
Now it’s 2005, 18 years after the Coney Island showdown, and Bracken is the head of the M.T.A. and running for mayor. Billy has surfaced, too, raving mad at first, but determined to stop Bracken and avenge his friend. Dondi, his son, isn’t sure how he feels about any of this. He’s adrift, having just been thrown out of both his mother’s apartment and his exclusive private school, and filled with resentment toward his long-absent father. But soon the whole family Rage, plus the surviving Immortals and graffiti fiends everywhere, have come together in a scheme to stop Bracken’s candidacy by painting a psychedelic J’accuse on every train in the system.
Whatever promise this plot may have held is undermined by a sort of literary attention deficit disorder. Mansbach’s characters tend to be as thin as rolling papers, and people and plot points alike are dropped and forgotten for little reason. Even Bracken, the chief villain, barely appears in the book. Elsewhere, Billy Rage tells one of his best friends he can “fix” his blindness with herbs he picked up in the Amazon. The friend sounds eager — and the whole matter never comes up again.
Still more annoying is Mansbach’s penchant for mysticism. Billy shares some of his experiences with his son by way of a 16-page drug trip that’s as excruciating as it sounds, a yackety graffiti writer’s way to Dullsville. There’s also a 14-story apartment building where you can skip a day ahead by climbing every flight of stairs, and an actual “demon” deep in an underground lair that seems to possess Bracken during the night of the shooting, and may be about to take over Gotham — but which is barely mentioned again and never seen.
Sorry, but it’s a well-known rule of drama that if you put an all-powerful demonic presence on the stage it has to, well, go all demonic on us at some point. This is not magical realism but magic, Gabriel García Márquez by way of Hogwarts.
Even as metaphor this all feels terribly tired — mostly because its creator’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it. What rage is he really talking about here, and to whom is it directed? Evil Rudy was shrunk back to human size years ago, with his pathetic foray into national politics. Dondi/Mansbach can’t even find it in himself to condemn gentrification much; as he explains, reasonably enough, bumping into cheese lovers on the street “beats running into rock fiends any day of the week.” He claims to hate his old school mainly because they expelled him for running a major pot-dealing operation out of his locker. The bastards. He resents his barely seen, entirely sympathetic ex-girlfriend — mainly, it seems, because her yuppie parents prefer wine to pot.
This is more Cheech and Chong than Che. Dondi tells us that “being underground touched some vigorous, neglected part of me that had never stopped wanting to have adventures and explore new lands — the part graffiti channeled when my parents were my age, and nothing channels today, to my generation’s great misfortune.” But this sounds more like Mansbach’s complaint than his narrator’s: Kids today!
At his best, Dondi emits a whiff of Holden Caulfield, channeled through a hip-hop sensibility. His social criticism can be gleefully clever when it comes to Brooklyn: “A Connecticut Muffin shop opened on Myrtle a couple of years ago. That’s what white people are doing in Fort Greene today: come for the baked goods, stay for the multimillion-dollar brownstones.” But it misses the enormous bull’s-eye of the Upper West Side, where a barbershop at 95th and West End is described as “musky with propriety; you walked in and suddenly understood that there were correct ways to do things, manly things like applying after-shave or buying cuff links.” This is a bizarre characterization of the old, eccentric, tattered Upper West Side, one so false it aches. There is, as well, a nasty, unwarranted little aside about Doc Gooden, and an offensive description of a sob emerging from a character’s mouth “like the first dude to leap from the North Tower.”
Where Caulfield’s social critiques defined him, Dondi’s only distance us. They make us all too aware of Mansbach’s refusal to own his narrative, to keep us immersed in the defiant, anarchic passion of the graffiti writers, painting their names in letters six feet high in the nighttime yards of a crumbling city. Mansbach has an impressive command of graffiti history and lingo, and dialogue in general, but he smothers his story with all his magic staircases, and his magic weed, and his ambiguities.
We paint from life, not because we are so small but because God is so great. I remember George R. R. Martin chortling on TV something to the effect that his “Game of Thrones” books were better than history, because they were history plus fantasy. Yet I suspect there were more wonders in any one day of medieval history than are dreamed of in all of Martin’s fantasies. The same could be said for New York back in the day — or now.