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.