‘Rage is Back’ by Adam Mansbach relays NYC graffiti story

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For all the recent institutional attention to graffiti, its natural habitat remains the grimy-glorious concrete jungle. “Rage is Back,” a new novel by Berkeley-based Adam Mansbach, author of children’s-book-turned-viral-sensation “Go the Fuck to Sleep,” knows it: “Don’t ever mention Haring to a graffiti writer by the way, or Basquiat either. Not unless you’re ready for a tutorial about how those guys were chumps, never hit trains, didn’t hang out at the Writers’ Bench on 149th and Grand Concourse, only painted where it was safe, fronted like they were real heads and made millions while the real heads are real broke heads, some of them with real broke heads.”

That’s Kilroy Dondi Vance, our 18-year-old guide through the underbelly of a decrepit New York City graffiti scene. Where’s this kid’s authority about “real heads” if the golden era of graffiti (mostly referring to the 80’s, when subway bombing a la “Style Wars” was still a thing) has given way to tarnished, rusted spray cans with no fat caps to keep the graffiti fat cats happy or happenin’ on the rails? Easy — he’s the son of two major graff players from back-in-the-day: Billy “RAGE” and Karen, whose street moniker was “WREN 209.” Kilroy, as it turns out, is here to make his mark and write his story in ink if not in Krylon Pastel Aqua. And what a story it is.

Billy bails out on fatherhood in ‘89, leaving Karen alone and understandably pissed off. She raises a similarly pissed off child. Though K.D. doesn’t take a spray can of rage to NYC, the emotional marks of his fury aren’t about to get buffed when his father materializes after 16 years. But Billy’s not just back to reconnect — Billy wants revenge from the people who led to his disappearance.

This is no smooth commute through prime graffiti territory. Mansbach invites us to leave our comfy vantage points from within the subway car and ease into gritty rooms reeking of airplane glue, drug dens where gangsters carry out revenge to rival ancient Greek epics and, to keep things accurate, gentrified neighborhoods where cheap bodega coffee is upgraded to “bougie” lattes.

Characters grapple with worlds and secrets larger than their own — the life of a graff writer, after all, is necessarily entrenched in the calligraphic details (and so, pleasantly, is Mansbach’s writing). K.D. is a most charming translator of these details. There are traditions and a history to graffiti that give K.D.’s world a rich vitality at which real-life wildstyles and burners can only hint.

But to linger on Mansbach’s creation of this world rife with graffiti vernacular is to reveal one’s tourist status. We might as well be students at “Whoopty Whoo Ivy League We’s A Comin’ Academy,” K.D.’s satirical name for his high school. Admittedly, it’s likely that a bunch of “whoopty whoo’s” will be this novel’s audience; “real heads” don’t care to be reading graffiti fiction when there are non-fictional walls begging for paint.

“Rage is Back,” thankfully, is not overly ambitious. It doesn’t aim to make grand statements on graffiti or fatherhood or gentrification or whatever; its main concern is telling a good story and creating a believable setting with captivating personalities. At this it succeeds. It’s an engaging page-turner, fun but not absorbing. An underwhelming climax and a few too many deus ex machina moments almost lessen the experience. K.D., too, can feel lacking as a character. The “estranged father” situation just doesn’t touch us as much as it could. Then again, this isn’t a drama — it’s a feel-good tale in a decidedly unusual setting. Nobody ever said you had to take graffiti seriously.

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