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Rage Is Back by Adam Mansbach (book cover)

“I remember I took KET–who’s an old friend of mine–out to lunch and said, ‘What would it take to bomb every train in the system at once?’  He got this look on his face like I had read his mind. He leaned forward and said ‘Yo, B. I been thinking about this for 20 years’–and this is how you could do it. The way it happens in the book is according to the blueprint [KET] gave me that day.”  So Adam Mansbach, New York Times best-selling author of Go The Fuck To Sleep breaks down the conceit that is at the heart of his brand new novel Rage Is Back.  Mansbach is already something of a celeb with Gen Y parents (and Samuel L. Jackson fans) for his infamously adult children’s story, but Rage is a very different kind of book and is already being touted as the “Great American Graffiti novel.”

That is at once a stretch and a disservice to the novel, which is both bigger and less severe than that tag demands. Its narrative ranges from the tunnels underneath NYC to the jungles of the Amazon basin and incorporates a heavy dose of magic realism–including time travel, demons and shamanistic knowledge of psychedelics–into its street level view of Graf culture. It’s also a coming of age story that weaves the internal struggles of late adolescence into an adventure tale in a way that draws explicitly on classics like Robert Louis Stephenson‘s Treasure Island and John Levert‘s Flight of The Cassowary.  These threads come together in the person of the tale’s narrator Kilroy Dondi Vance, the teenage son of two legendary graffiti writers–one of whom is the Billy Rage that gives the novel its title. The revenge scenario that demands the bombing of all NY’s subway trains in an atavistic throwback to the golden era of Graf–a scenario which involves a possessed transit cop, a murdered graf artist and sentient tree in the Amazon– is also the story of Dondi fighting to know and accept this absentee father (in the movie which might be made of the book–in the style of 80s goofball adventure classics like Goonies, no doubt–Rage will be most likely be played by Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys.)

There is however a kernel of truth in the ‘Great American Graffiti Novel’ elevator pitch. Many of the novels most lyrical passages are also its most down to earth, grounded in the real experience of New York’s writers:

“Four, five in the morning is every writer’s favorite time. The city’s as quiet as your apartment right after the refrigerator cycles down. Nobody’s alive but you and your boys and your recently-completed joints, voluptuous and razor-sharp, vibrating and bulging with the struggle of containing their own energy. You’re backstage grinning at the newest-freshest, knowing that soon you’ll be home asleep and the burners will be rolling out on their maiden voyage.”

When it falls short, the drop is a very slight, heavily cushioned fall for the reader. Where Mansbach–a key player in NY’s 90s hip-hop scene who once co-edited Elementary magazine with KET, occasionally fails to channel the perspective of a scornful new jack on the culture he knows and loves so well, we’re left with the sensation of speaking directly to the author himself, a knowledgable  and entertaining guide through the city’s various neighborhoods and phases. Any rupture in the suspense of disbelief that results is more than compensated by the skill with which the tale is told, not to mention the guilty pleasure–for serious hiphop heads–of layer upon layer of urban lore, musical in-jokes and coded references that are dropped along the way.

The cops and robbers game between transit cops and system-bombers that gives much of the novel its narrative force is of course a very real part of New York’s recent history and it’s worth reviewing here a few of the non-fiction stories which inspired the novel, either loosely (as in the case of transit cop Joseph Rivera who recorded his experiences in the book Vandal Squad (reviewed on Pg. 3) or directly, as in the case of KET, who is also graf scholar and author Alain Mariduena. KET not only supplied Mansbach with the blueprint for his novel’s perfect art-crime. He also embodies the post-1990 graffiti writer which, as Mansbach explained to Okayplayer by phone from the Bay Area–inspired the book in a bigger sense:

“I knew that the official narrative–that the city had put a stop to graffiti by 1990, that KET’s crew and certain others were still hitting trains after the buff as a kind of ‘fuck-you’ to the city. I was intrigued by the act of hitting a train, knowing that no-one would ever see it, and that lead pretty directly to the idea that you’d have to hit all of them.”

Turn the page for the review of Rockin’ It Suckers which records KET’s real-life battle with the buff. —>

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Titles reviewed in this column:

Rage Is Back: A Novel – Adam Mansbach (Viking, 2013)

>>>Purchase Rage Is Back (via iBookstore)

Rockin’ It Suckers: New York City’s Most Wanted Graffiti Vandals 

- KET and Cousin Frank (Dokument Press, 2010)

>>>Purchase Rockin’ It Suckers (via Dokument)

Vandal Squad: Inside the New York City Transit Police Department, 1984-2004

Joseph Rivera, Powerhouse Books, 2008

>>>Purchase Vandal Squad (via Random House)

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