“Rage Is Back” won’t become a staple at ironic baby showers, but Mansbach has clearly had a play date with Michael Chabon and Junot Diaz, and his fresh, witty novel is one that hip readers will relish once the kids have finally, mercifully, nodded off. Laced with zaniness and cultural bling, it’s a nostalgic tribute to the glory days of street art, back when New York City had character, when those bubbly letters shouted from rambling subway cars and people loved to spot their favorite artists.
The story opens in 2005, long after James Q. Wilson advised replacing every broken window and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sanitized Times Square for Kansas tourists desperate to see the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber-Disney co-production on ice. Our ricocheting narrator is Kilroy Dondi Vance, “a mocha teenager” with a funkadelic soul. He warns us early on that he’s always high, “but in a charming, articulate way.” Fair enough — he is pretty charming, but his drug use is what gets him expelled from a tony Manhattan prep school that he refers to as the “Whoopty Whoo Ivy League We’s a Comin’ Academy.” (He attended on the “Let’s Give a Clever Young Colored Boy a Chance to Transcend His Race Scholarship.”) Exasperated, his hot-tempered mother has thrown him out of the house, and so, homeless and with his college prospects scuttled, he falls back on sponging off old friends and dealing pot.
There’s no resisting this endearing stoner, “a nerd with swagger,” as he riffs on everything from Madison Avenue to yuppies’ racial anxiety. The opening pages stretch out like the chaotic New York City subway map, but the story resolves into a quirky tale of comeuppance involving Dondi’s errant father, Billy Rage.
In the late 1980s, Rage was a member of the Immortal Five, a world-famous graffiti gang that delighted New Yorkers but infuriated the NYPD Vandal Squad. “What you call mass email,” Dondi says, “my parents called hitting trains.” A maniacal policeman named Officer Bracken chased the gang down and shot one of its members in cold blood on the night Dondi was born. Crazy with grief, Rage protested the killing by painting accusations all over town, but Bracken struck back with a massive manhunt and a multimillion-dollar fine. With nowhere left to hide, Rage finally fled to Mexico, abandoning Dondi and his mother.
Well, now Rage is back. For Dondi, so full of anger and longing, this is a chance to bond with the man behind the giant letters. But Rage has other plans. Fortified with Amazonian drugs and mysticism, he’s determined to destroy Officer Bracken’s political career with a historic bombing.
Graffiti bombing, that is — an unprecedented campaign to paint every subway car in New York in a single night. But talk of “bombing” the subway system is a bittersweet reminder of how much has changed in the Big Apple and in America since the heyday of those bubblelicious designs. Dondi claims he knows “more about nostalgia than anybody my age should,” and it’s true. He’s spent his whole life soaking in the day-glo hues of those shadowy kings and queens — his parents’ friends and colleagues who once sprayed their magic with intoxicated glee. But now they’re jailed or dead or co-opted by advertising firms. We scrubbed away all the graffiti only to replace it with the flat colors of the Terrorism Threat Advisory Scale.
Whether you buy this sentimental version of 1980s vandalism may depend on how much cleaning up you had to do back in the day and how mesmerized you are by Dondi’s comic patter, both high and highfalutin. “Most people want to lose themselves in stories,” he says. “If you’re already frowning and thinking I’m an unreliable narrator, or going ‘oh goody, I love magical realism,’ then you should cut your losses and go read ‘Tuesdays with Morrie.’ ”
That’s not bad advice for readers who like their novels to stay within the lines. As “Rage Is Back” barrels along toward “the splashiest and slickest crime in city history,” it jangles down some colorless dead ends and runs off the rails a few times, particularly whenever Dondi gets out of the driver’s seat. There’s no good reason, for instance, to turn one of the chapters over to a different narrator (who doesn’t sound quite different enough), and the manuscript of a drug dealer’s short story that’s dumped into the novel is equally ineffective.
Also disappointing are the surreal elements that Mansbach seems unwilling to commit to or cultivate. In the building where Dondi discovers his long-absent father, there’s a touch of “Being John Malkovich” that’s just Mansbach being coy. And a wonderfully creepy appearance of a devil deep in the subway tunnels remains all smoke, no brimstone.
Perhaps these are the flaws we should expect from a young narrator who openly confesses, “I have no idea how to write a book.” But Mansbach is no novice, and the rough patches are soon painted over. What’s more, it’s invigorating to find a white writer willing to crash the color barrier. (So deeply ingrained is the fear of appearing in blackface that most novelists feel more comfortable imagining the inner lives of Martians than of African Americans. When did respect ferment into aversion?) In the sweet and obscene voice of mixed-race Dondi, Mansbach has created a sharp commentator on the persistent nervousness of our integrated society.
And who knows, his swirling descriptions might entice you to pick up an old can of Krylon one night and let fly some “playful, soft-edged letters leaned together like off-kilter drunks, floating atop pastel puddles of melted Popsicle.” But even if you never go out bombing with your crew, you’ll consider just what we gave up to keep our subway cars clean — and dull.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
Adam Mansbach will be at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Tuesday. For information call 202-408-3100.