In 2011 Adam Mansbach found he had an unexpected and enormous hit on his hands with a modest mock children’s book, “Go the F*** to Sleep.” Published by a small indie house, Akashic Books, which had a microscopic publicity budget, the book went viral on the Internet. It reached No. 1 on Amazon even before it was officially published, no doubt helped by Samuel L. Jackson’s narration on YouTube, where he delivers an aria of increasing parental exasperation in coping with an obstinate, procrastinating 3-year-old at bedtime. Each verse culminates with the lovely refrain “Please, go the f*** to sleep.” We have all thought this even if we’ve avoided singing it aloud. For those wary of committing to parenthood, Mansbach’s piece offers excellent inoculation.
“Rage Is Back” will ricochet off the astonishing best-seller success of GTFTS and lots of copies will sell on that account alone. But also it should gain in reputation and respect for its own strengths, which reach quite beyond the cute cleverness of GTFTS. The book is first of all a history of the subway train graffiti-writing that swept New York City from the early ’70s to the late ’80s. Thereby it’s also a story of names, self-nominated ones, the tags graffiti writers use in their work. An elegant contraption of a book, “Rage Is Back” is held together and made to run because of the remarkable voice of the narrator, one Kilroy Dondi Vance, age 18 at the time of writing, the biracial son of two graffiti writers, Billy and Karen (noms de plume: “Rage” and “Wren 209”).
When the novel begins in 2005, Dondi’s been kicked out of school (nosy janitor, weed in the locker). His mother, who has ambitions for him, has kicked him out of the house and therefore he’s been couch-surfing, relying on the kindness of friends. Finally, his father, who has disappeared for 16 years, returns suddenly to wreak revenge on a sadistic MTA cop Anastacio Bracken, who (probably) murdered Billy’s friend, Amuse, and who is now running for mayor. Bracken gets one long scene in the novel, sitting in the back of one of those Mercedes Benz limos with the black tinted windows. He’s ruthlessly extorting a member of Billy’s crew to discover Billy’s whereabouts and incidentally to pocket a fine load of cash for himself. If I were to cast the movie, Bracken would be played by Rudy Giuliani with his insincere horse-toothy smile.
Mansbach hangs a complex story on the basic revenge plot, the outline of which is clear enough, while the carrying out is breathtakingly ornate. The idea is to simultaneously “bomb” (that is, graffiti up) every single subway car in the city all in one weekend, thereby shaming Bracken’s “war on vandals” and ruining his mayoral chances. It impossible to untangle in a summary all the strands, because so much gets fuzzed up by the continuous veil of marijuana smoke and the reports of what’s happening invariably get distorted by the huge amounts of other hallucinogens ingested. It’s best for the reader so inclined to go along and enjoy the ride. There’s much instruction and delight along the way.
“Rage Is Back” tells us what has happened to New York City in roughly the 30 or so years from the mid-1970s to the present, but from the inside of a largely anonymous teenagers’ subculture making its presence felt loudly and continuously, especially to the millions of everyday riders on MTA subways and buses. But this was violence committed by aerosol spray cans, not by guns. The kids carry paint, the cops carry the heat. Mansbach gets this story told by the remarkable voice and viewpoint of his 18 year-old narrator, Kilroy Dondi Vance. Almost all the names in “Rage Is Back” (I stopped counting as I approached 50) are noms de plume, the tags graffitists use to sign their work. In fact, their work consists mostly of tags with some vaguely anarchistic political slogans tossed in one occasion. Another way of putting it: the graffitists literally impose their names over the public spaces we see. Dondi carefully distinguishes between the graffitists who are merely slobs and defacers and those who might be considered artists. That’s a tough issue and one that Dondi often elides: What is art, however transgressive, and what is dreck, mere vandalism?
Graffitists’ names affirm an identity at once secret, cryptically obscure (who knows what “Cloud 9” means?) and screamingly public, announced in bright colors on the sides of often-vacant buildings and most famously on the sides of subway trains. These names are self-nominated tickets to celebrity of a sort, notoriety for sure, and in all events gestures of self-fashioning.
Interestingly, Kilroy Dondi’s names are an exception: his names are “given” him by his parents firstly, to honor the anonymous World War II GI graffitists who scrawled the dopey face and big nose drooping over a fence with the legend “Kilroy was here” on walls all over Europe. Secondly, “Dondi” alludes to the comic book war orphan with the cute button eyes and also pays homage to the “Dondi” tag of one of the most famous of the 1980s graffitists. Dondi, the narrator, therefore is both in the world of the graffiti culture and not in it, able to long for the adventure of doing lots of thrillingly illegal stuff and at the same time able to realize how ridiculous and self-destructive the graffiti writers of the ’70s and early ’80s were.
Dondi’s ambition is to write an important book about how we live now. Or at least how some of us live now and how we got here. He realizes he’s really too young for such a project, understanding that as of now he’s merely “a nerd with swagger.” But he’s also determined to “Fake it until you make it. Sit in the Chair,” adapting this AA mantra for his own purpose.
Dondi enjoys making sarcastic fun of the school he attended, calling it the “Whoopty Whoo Ivy League We’s a Comin’ Academy.” He also suspects he was admitted in the first place on the “Let’s Give a Clever Young Colored Boy a Chance to Transcend His Race Scholarship.” Nevertheless, because of his Huck Finn-like preternaturally shrewd intelligence and the benefit of the truly excellent education in the humanities he has been receiving as a scholarship boy, Dondi has the equipment to ride free-range through Western culture: arts and letters, Homer to Chester Himes, “journalism” from Herodotus to Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. He remembers from “The Great Gatsby” last read in eighth-grade English class, who rigged the 1919 World Series. In passing, he mentions two major 19th century authors who wrote compellingly about life underground (this after all in a book about subways) – Dickens and Victor Hugo. He calls them Chuck Dickens and Vic Hugo, as if they were familiars from the “nabe.” Dondi’s not just dropping names either. He’s always got a point to make or a comparison to illuminate. It’s a real nerdy swagger I would say. Also funny.
Rage Is Back
By Adam Mansbach
290 pages, $26.95
Stefan Fleischer taught in the English Department at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He now resides in Houston.