Viking: 304 pp., $26.95
"I always had this sense that there was a great American graffiti novel waiting to be written," Adam Mansbach says.
Best known as the author of the bestselling, foul-mouthed "children's book for adults" "Go the F— to Sleep," Mansbach has penned an ambitious new novel. "Rage is Back" is a loving homage to graffiti culture in New York City.
Graffiti has been celebrated in art books and documentaries and canonized in recent shows like MOCA's "Art in the Streets" exhibition, but few long works of fiction exist. With "Rage is Back," Mansbach aims to change all that.
"I'm very interested in thinking about hip-hop aesthetics on the page," Mansbach says. "What does a literature of hip-hop look like?"
Mansbach has an East Coast swagger to him, a refreshing in-your-face directness. Over a tall glass of coffee at a Berkeley cafe, he speaks as fluidly as he writes — peppering his language liberally with slang, cracking jokes, layering in references ranging from Homer to Jay-Z.
"There are more curses in ['Rage is Back'] than there are in 'Go the F— to Sleep,'" he jokes.
It's hard to escape talking about the over-the-top success of his satire of a bedtime book, which made its debut at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in 2011. "Go the F— to Sleep," which started as a joke on Facebook, was an overnight viral marketing sensation. The book's small indie publisher, Akashic Books, circulated advance PDFs instead of conventional galleys, which traded hands so many times that the book hit No. 1 on Amazon's bestseller list months before it was even published.
Mansbach's previous novels, including "Angry Black White Boy" and "The End of the Jews," were critically acclaimed, but "Go the F— to Sleep" became a bona fide cultural touchstone, attracting high-profile fans ranging from Samuel L. Jackson (who read the audio book version) to Werner Herzog.
"Rage is Back," meanwhile, is a 290-page novel that took nearly three years, on and off, to write — a successor, he says, to "The End of the Jews." It revolves around Dondi Vance, a smart, conflicted Brooklyn teenager whose parents were old-school graffiti legends.
It's 2005, and Dondi is sick of hearing about the glory days of graffiti; his deadbeat dad, Billy Rage, has been on the run from the law for 16 years. To him, New York in the 1970s and '80s is old-man stuff.
"I spent my childhood surrounded by grown… men who still call themselves Donk 202 and Blaze One…arguing about who kinged the 2 [subway trains] in '76 and who rocked the Flying Eyeball character first, Kid Panama or Seen," Dondi says in the book. "I know more about nostalgia than anybody my age should, man."
Dondi is wise beyond his years — wiser, perhaps, than the complicated adults who surround him. When Dondi's father suddenly bursts into Dondi's life, he unleashes a wild wave of chaos, adventure and soul-searching.
For Mansbach, "Rage is Back" strikes a deeply personal chord. "Dondi's voice really flowed for me," he says. Mansbach spent his formative years in New York City, immersing himself in hip-hop culture and founding a hip-hop magazine called Elementary.
"I was primarily an MC and a DJ, but I also wrote graffiti and I hung out with a lot of graffiti writers," Mansbach says. "I was never particularly good. I was a good MC, I was a good DJ, but graffiti — the hand styles — it wasn't my thing. So I kind of demoted myself to [the role of] lookout pretty quickly."
For 20 years, he says, he's been befriending graffiti writers, talking to them about their history.