Back in the late-’80s, Billy Rage was the man, the most prolific and stylistically impressive graffiti artist in New York City — until he disappeared.
Fast forward to 2005 and the narration of Rage’s son, Kilroy Dondi Vance, an intellectually gifted 18-year-old Brooklynite and self-described “nerd with swagger” who makes side money by “selling hydroponic sinsemilla to stainless steel refrigerator owners living in neighborhoods that had just been invented.”
Thus does Adam Mansbach begin to set up the complicated twists and turns of his new novel, “Rage Is Back,” a tale of fathers and sons, revenge and redemption.
Dondi, it turns out, attended a prestigious prep school on a “What the Hell, Let’s Give a Clever Young Colored Boy a Chance to Transcend His Race Scholarship,” but was expelled for selling marijuana. He is still bitter about his father’s abandonment but doesn’t know the full story. Helping him piece it together is one his father’s old running mates, Dengue Fever, a massive, blind, glue-sniffing pseudo-Rastafarian who serves as a kind of historian for Rage and company’s exploits around the boroughs.
Dengue is just one of Rage’s former partners-in-crime, part of the legendary Immortal Five, who tore across the city in a rampage of tagging prowess, usually one step ahead of the MTA cop in charge of controlling graffiti, Anastacio Bracken. But when Bracken catches up to one of the gang, Amuse, and kills him, Rage loses it and drenches the city in vigilante justice, plastering dozens of highly visible tags implicating Bracken — e.g., “NYPD’S ANASTACIO BRACKEN MURDERED ANDREW ‘AMUSE’ STEIN IN COLD BLOOD.”
As Dondi struggles to maintain his rep as drug dealer and find a measure of peace with his tough-as-nails mother, Rage returns to the city, beaten-down and broken after many drug-addled years as an shaman in the Amazon. The story of the past decade gradually emerges, but Rage’s old crew, in addition to dozens of other graffiti crews throughout the city, are more focused on the task at hand: sabotaging Bracken’s run for mayor by tagging every subway car in a single hit, striking while they’re lined up for cleaning in sheds around the city.
Rage may be the king, but this story is Dondi’s, and his spicy, street-wise patois and colorful narrative sketching keep the pages flying. Some descriptions enter Hunter S. territory — e.g., “like the mathematical proof of some impending planetary doom, worked out in great haste by a madman writing in the language of a savage alien race” — but Mansbach, author of “The End of the Jews” and the children’s-book parody sensation “Go the F**ck to Sleep,” is most impressive when he limns the vivid after-hours world of the graffiti artists: “heightened alertness of the mission has smoothed itself down to a glossy pride, and you’re enjoying your last few minutes with an oblivion-bound creation you’re never gonna see up-close again . . . talking late night trash, trading lies and war stories, or else an early morning spasm of sincerity has gripped the crew, and love and loss and life and death are on the table.”
The book’s last few chapters are a relentless, hopped-up ride through the feverish band’s insane scheme as they careen toward the finish line, “that time of day when the city always seems fresh and clean and slightly desolate, and you feel as though you share a strange, vague secret with every other person walking the streets at such an uncivilized hour.”
In Dondi, Mansbach has created an unforgettable narrator who combines elements of Holden Caulfield, Oscar Wao, and even a hint of Ignatius J. Reilly. But Dondi is no simple amalgam. He’s a straight-talking smart-ass who wins points for his brutal honesty, urban worldliness, and sympathy for the honorable criminal.
Though it may not garner the level of award bestowed on Junot Diaz’s masterpiece, Mansbach’s wild ride will likely earn cult-classic status — and deservedly so.
Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus