Though you may not be able to judge a book by its cover, you can certainly select one based on it. Such is the case with Adam Mansbach’s first adult effort since his runaway hit children’s book Go The Fuck To Sleep.
The cover image immediately brought to mind one of my all-time favorite books: Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s ground-breaking book, Subway Art (1984) and immediately transported me back to the late 1970s/early 1980s when subway bombing was done with spray paint not biohazards.
The connection to Subway Art—whether intentional or not—was further reinforced by a various things throughout the book, starting with the protagonist’s name Kilroy Dondi (Vance), and mentions of Seen. Though I’m not sure about Vance, both Dondi and Seen were up writers during the late 70s and early 80s—though Kilroy only shows up as a tag. Further, narrator Dondi even ventures to set the record straight by reporting that Kid Panama—not Seen—was the first to draw the flying eyeball—their images are included in Cooper & Chalfant’s book. However, this is where all comparisons end.
Adam Mansbach takes the reader on a rather strange journey narrated by 18-year-old K. Dondi Vance, the interracial son of two well-known graffiti artists from back in the day—Billy “Rage” and Karen “Wren209”. The story begins following the birth of Dondi, when Rage and his crew meet to commemorate the occasion graffiti style. However, things go terribly wrong when MTA Police Chief Anastacio Bracken chases them down and murders one of them in cold blood. Soon after, Billy Rage falls off the grid and out of Dondi’s life.
Now, 16 years later, Bracken is running for mayor, Billy Rage reemerges, and Dondi is left piecing together the fallout from his recent suspension from his posh private school and his feelings on the return of his estranged father.
Whether he’s reiterating wild lore from his parents’ writing days, discussing life lessons, or being a part of history in the making, Dondi calls it like he sees it.
Given that this is the tale of a Brooklyn street kid, it only makes sense for Dondi to speak in slang, riddles, and sometimes just pure nonsense that tends render him as rather unreliable—though among his unceasing chatter he does manage to throw in a few good lines that earn an appreciative laugh or two.
Despite being the son of two artists, Dondi doesn’t seem to have any skills short of delivering weed, and the gift of gab—his one attempt at graffiti ended up in a poorly rendered tag of his father’s name.
At times, Dondi—and the plot—are a little out there. What starts out as a street-wise, hip-hop vibe soon becomes a bizarre, hallucinatory tale with time traveling stairwells, tunnel demons, and psychotropic mind journeys courtesy of resins liberated from the rainforest and made from a recipe dictated by a tree. It’s not to say that this is a problem, just that it’s strange and random—most likely, Mansbach’s intention.
Adam Mansbach’s novel harkens back to a time when sex, not Disney, ruled Times Square, crime was at an all-time high, and the subway cars exhibited the colorfully illicit skills of highly talented artists that brought a different brand of beauty to the streets and tunnels of NYC.
Despite getting a little wearing on the nerves, Rage is Back elicits nostalgic memories of the turbulent years that marked a different time, a different mentality, a different New York—one that left its indelible mark on those who witnessed it well after the buff stripped away all the paint.
Reading level: Ages 18 and up
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult (January 14, 2013)