Rage is Back: graffiti crews save NYC from its lurking demons

Adam Mansbach's Rage is Back is a sneaky hybrid of a novel, part nostalgic urban graffiti memoir, full of vintage hiphop references and lush, old school New York descriptions; part brooding supernatural thriller where shamanic ritual and ancient subterranean presences secretly shape the mundane world of crime, wealth, privilege and art.

Dondi Vance, Rage's narrator, is the son of the legendary Rage Vance, a graffiti writer who went underground when Dondi was just two years old. Dondi's grown up with his mother, another graffiti writer, though she went straight with a job at second-rate literary agency and did her best to bring Dondi up right. He's bright, the kind of kid who qualifies for a scholarship spot at a fancy uptown private school, where his good grades point to an Ivy League future -- until he gets caught selling weed to his classmates and gets both expelled and kicked out of home.

All Dondi's life, he's heard stories about his father, and his father's madness. On the night Dondi was born, Rage and his crew went out to bomb a subway train with huge murals celebrating the birth. They were caught by Officer Bracken, a notorious cop who hated them with an irrational, unstoppable fury -- a fury so fierce that he actually drew his gun on them as they ran off, and, ultimately, murdered one of the crew, a young man named Eclipse.

The death pushed Rage over the edge, turned him into a revenge-bent graffiti-writing machine who covered massive swaths of the five boroughs with BRACKEN KILLED ECLIPSE tags and murals. Bracken, meanwhile, climbed the police ranks, seemingly unstoppably, and got Rage indicted in absentia, which led to Rage leaving for Mexico, abandoning his wife and their two-year-old son Dondi.

Rage is back. He's come back from a long dreamtime wandering the Amazon, learning from shamans, learning to be a shaman. And he's got revelations for Dondi about the night of the birth and the murder -- revelations about the thing they found in the subway tunnel, the force they encountered, an ancient evil that found something it liked in Bracken, who is now poised to become mayor of New York City.

Dondi is a hip-hop Holden Caufield, alienated from his parents and his schoomates, surrounded by role models of dubious vintage and value, desperately wanting to belong, but not wanting to give up his individuality. He's got a bright, acerbic, cynical adolescent outlook that's a treat to read (though I suspect it'd be less fun to be around). The caper that fills the second half of the book is big, weird, brash, and riddled with history and supernatural juju, and his ride through it is vastly entertaining, right through to the last page. This is a tremendously fun novel, and an authentic exploration of an illegal subculture, with all the frustrations and glories that entails.

If Adam Mansbach's name rings a bell, it might be because of his number-one NYT bestselling, piracy-as-viral-promo book Go the Fuck to Sleep.

Rage is Back