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'Rage is Back' review: Adam Mansbach's gritty NYC tale

Grafitti on a warehouse in Long Island City,

Grafitti on a warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. Credit: Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

RAGE IS BACK, by Adam Mansbach. Viking, 290 pp., $26.95.

How surprising it must have been for Adam Mansbach -- poet, essayist and author of smart literary fiction -- to find himself with a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller in 2011. In the kind of Faustian bargain that most writers would have had trouble turning down, his success wasn't for literary fiction but for "Go the ---- to Sleep," a hilarious but comparatively insubstantial "children's book for adults" that broke out of the literary world to capture the attention of the nation. (A reading of the book by Samuel L. Jackson on YouTube has almost 2 million views.) Now, Mansbach is back with a novel diametrically opposed to his last offering in terms of ambition, complexity and volume.

"Rage Is Back" is the story of Kilroy Dondi Vance, a biracial kid from Brooklyn, freshly ejected from his elite prep school for dealing drugs before he could seal the deal with an Ivy League admissions office. His father, legendary graffiti artist Billy Rage, was forced to split town on the day of Dondi's birth in 1989, after malicious and overzealous cop Anastacio Bracken shot and killed Rage's partner and put a price on Rage's head, in the form of outstanding fines for vandalism. At the beginning of the book, Rage has finally returned from a 16-year vision quest through Mexico, during which time he picked up some shamanic healing skills, thanks either to communion with a maternal Gaia spirit or some really good drugs. He has come back just in time to catch Bracken's campaign for mayor, which may or may not be buoyed by a malevolent spiritual being that may or may not have been stirred up on the night Bracken chased the graffiti writers deep into the city's subterranean tunnels. To stop Bracken, Dondi and his father must assemble a crew of Original Gangstas and youngbloods for one massive act of civic art and public protest.

Arrayed around these core characters is a constellation of thugs, artists, poets, drug dealers and mole people that forms an original picture of marginalized New York. Born of that world, Dondi speaks a patois laden with cultural references and street slang that might have been embarrassing for both writer and reader if it weren't so skillfully employed. Likewise, the book might have seemed exploitative or gawking if Mansbach weren't so well researched (or well experienced) on his subject matter.

The book will surely be called "gritty" and celebrated for its street ethos and Junot Díaz-style colloquialism, but it's the sporadic elements of the supernatural that set it apart. In addition to some elemental good vs. evil, Mansbach goes full-on magical realist (although Dondi, narrating, scoffs at the genre), and includes a stairwell that doubles, in the most literal sense, as a time portal to 24 hours in the future. Although some readers will be intrigued by this artifice, it doesn't add much to the story, and feels a bit tacked-on.

There also is a surprising moral complexity here that transcends the somewhat base moniker of "Graffiti Novel," as the book is hailed on the jacket. If Bracken is truly the captive pawn of evil forces beyond his reckoning, then it's difficult for the reader to celebrate too joyously at his downfall. Furthermore, implied in the novel's conceit are two nettlesome notions: First, that graffiti, by definition, found only on property other than the tagger's, is a romantic and misunderstood art form more or less immune to moral consideration, and, second, that Rage's New York City of the 1980s, when graffiti artists used the trains and other public spaces as canvases to measure their egos, is one to be missed.

Mansbach has clearly thought through these issues, and he addresses them artfully, but they may still be sticking points for some readers. These considerations aside, "Rage Is Back" is a wild and enjoyable ride, bumpy as the C-train and loud as the headphones on the kid sitting next to you.

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