Rage1Adam Mansbach’s latest book, Rage is Back, takes us deep inside the spiritual anarchy and defiant politics of the graffiti art world. Among other things, the novel explores the fascinating intersection of art, crime, and commerce — the tenuous place where graffiti artists past and present have made their mark in our society. In the context of our current urban culture wars, where an artist such as Banksy now enjoys considerable wealth and prestige, while other lesser known street artists find themselves locked up in prison or tied up in court, Rage is Back strikes me as a book that desperately needed to be written–if not by Mansbach, then by someone else with a similar outlook. It’s just as well that it was Mansbach, though; his tremendous skills as a writer are ideally suited for this rich material. Manbach’s previous effort, the mock children’s picture book called Go the Fuck to Sleep, was a surprise hit and bestseller. Now, with Rage is Back, he has given us The Great American Graffiti Novel.

The plot of the novel is rooted in a horrific crime, namely, a New York City transit cop’s cold-blooded murder of a particular graffiti artist in 1987. We learn about this crime, and its present-day ramifications, from the perspective of Dondi Vance, who narrates the novel with enough style and swagger to fuel an entire army of young urban guerrillas. Dondi is an 18 year-old wise-ass — a cynical, street-smart bullshit artist who’s been booted out of his yuppie prep school, and kicked out of his mother’s home, for dealing hydro weed all over Manhattan. As he ponders his current predicament, Dondi fills us in on the story of his absent father, Billy Rage, who used to be one of New York’s best graffitists back in the eighties. In those heady years, Rage ran with a crew of four other taggers who called themselves “The Immortal Five.” On the night of Dondi’s birth in ‘87, the crew celebrated by getting stoned on two hits of Donald Duck acid apiece and then heading out to spray-paint up a storm at the Coney Island train yard. In a chaotic scene, they ended up being chased off by the authorities. During this fracas, one member of the crew, who went by the moniker “Amuse,” was gunned down by a cop named Anastacio Bracken, who then covered up the killing by making the death appear to be a train accident.

For The Immortal Five, Dondi tells us, the death of Amuse was a shattering blow. It led Dondi’s father, Billy Rage, to set forth on an angry vendetta — a legendary run spent bombing the brutal fact of Amuse’s death all over New York City. Slogans such as “Bracken Shot Amuse” appeared on sidewalks, bridges, buildings, and monuments throughout the city. Eventually, we are told, Rage had to flee the country, leaving Dondi to be raised by his single mother.

Now, eighteen years after that fateful night of birth and death, Dondi is couch-surfing around town, selling buds here and there, when he learns that his infamous father has returned. Word on the street is Rage is back. And Amuse’s killer, Anastacio Bracken (a Giuliani-type figure), is running for mayor of New York. Dondi and Rage are reunited, along with members of the old crew. Together, they hatch a mad scheme with which to derail Bracken’s political power-grab. The drama that unfolds in executing this scheme provides the book’s main narrative thrust.

Rage5It’s quite a ride to the finish line, and Mansbach delivers plenty of suspense down the stretch. The real star of the show, however, is the first-person narration of Dondi Vance. He’s a new Holden Caulfield, all brought up to date for the early 21st century, ripped on skunk-weed and steeped in rap music, spraying nouns and verbs and thoughts and riffs with wildstyle, hip hop-inflected abandon. Dondi’s literary cousins are Dylan Ebdus from Jonathan Lethem’s stellar Fortress of Solitude, Chappie from Russell Banks’s celebrated Rule of the Bone, and Vernon Little from DBC Pierre’s superbly deranged Vernon God Little. With Dondi, though, Mansbach takes us even further into the heterogenous style, language, and outlook of contemporary, postmodern urban youth. Thus, as a pure “voice novel,” Rage is Back is a tour de force. Dondi’s take on current events, books, films, drugs, crime — and anything else that comes to mind — is sharp and vivid and often hilarious. Check out how he launches right into the very first paragraph of the novel:

 “When Ambassador Dengue Feber told me that Billy wasn’t dead after all but half-alive and back in town, skulking through the Transit System’s blackened veins feral and broken and scrawling weird mambo-jahambo on the walls with chalk–chalk! as if spraypaint never existed–I pretty much just shrugged a whatever shrug and kept on selling hydroponic sensimilla to stainless steel refrigerator owners living in neighborhoods that had just been invented, and hoping Karen would let me back in the apartment soon, me being her son and all, even if I had been expelled from fucking Whoopty Woo Ivy League We’s A Comin’ Academy on account of some Upper Eastside whiteboys’ inability to keep my botanical enterprises, of which they were the major beneficiaries, on the low.”

Rage6 Some reviewers, while praising the book’s linguistic audacity, found the plot to be a bit loose and meandering. But I found that the spiritual digressions and psychedelic trips only served to highlight the wild and freewheeling nature of the graffiti art world that the book strives to convey with such passion. In this milieu, you can easily see yourself discussing radical politics one moment, and Tibetan Buddhism or Amazonian shamans the next. With some free jazz and ancient Greek poetry and prison slang mixed in for good measure. It’s like Sun Ra and Kerouac having a chat at the barbershop, and ending up planning a bank heist together.

Besides, sometimes even when the stakes are high, we need to lighten up and just go with the flow. In this manner, we will find that the plot of Rage is Back hangs together just fine. And the sociological significance of that plot probably runs deeper than some members of the literati realize. I’m not quite sure, for instance, what Kevin Baker is getting at in his New York Times review of Rage is Back when he grouses about Mansbach, “What rage is he really talking about here, and to whom is it directed? Evil Rudy [Giuliani] was shrunk back to human size years ago, with his pathetic foray into national politics.”

Actually, with or without “Evil Rudy,” when you consider the plight of many graffiti artists in cities across the country, there may be plenty to rage about, depending on your point of view. Matthew Newton’s remarks in a February 22, 2010 article for The Crime Report provide a useful context in which to think about what some of the rage in Rage is Back is really all about. Newton writes:

 “Graffiti artists and their defenders claim that what they do is not just art, but the manifestation of a rich, decades-old street culture. To opponents of course, it is simply vandalism, punishable by an escalating level of fines, jail time or community service. The fines can vary, depending on whether it is prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony—which in turns depends on where the case is being tried. In Pittsburgh, for example, damages exceeding $5,000 are considered a felony, while in New York, only damages less than $1,500 are prosecuted as misdemeanors.

“The wide variations in punishment, as well as the different methods used to calculate damages and collect evidence may be one reason that consistent statistics are hard to come by. Yet one thing appears certain: graffiti artists are not only unfazed by the forces arrayed against them; they seem to be energized..

“Recent convictions nationwide have shown a hardening of the criminal justice system’s stance against graffiti artists. In December, Corpus Christi (Texas) Judge Marisela Saldaña sentenced 18-year-old Sebastian Perez to eight years in prison on three counts of graffiti and one count of marijuana possession, giving Perez the maximum two-year sentence for each charge. Under Texas law, both crimes are felonies. But due to a new state law prohibiting judges to ‘stack’ consecutive sentences, Perez’ sentence was reduced to two years.

“Danielle Bremner, aka UTAH, has been arrested and sentenced multiple times in the past two years. In April 2009, Bremner was sentenced to six months at New York’s Rikers Island facility and ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution to the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. After her release from Rikers, she served another six months in a Boston prison for similar offenses and was released in January.

“The most notable case in recent years, however, is the July 2008 conviction of Daniel Montano (aka MF ONE), the graffitist sentenced to 2 ½ to 5 years in a Pennsylvania state penitentiary. The Pittsburgh Police Bureau’s Graffiti Task Force estimated Montano caused over $700,000 in damages to private and public property. And when Montano is released from prison, he will owe $234,000 in restitution and be expected to fulfill 2,500 hours of community service.”

I imagine we can all agree that random gangland tags and sloppy renditions of offensive slurs are no better than junk in our cities–basically a form of pollution. Skinheads painting swastikas on churches is not art. To acknowledge this, however, clearly does not negate the validity of graffiti art as a whole. Graffiti artists are responsible for some of the most vibrant visual art you can find anywhere in America in the past thirty years. The fact that most of this art is illegal presents us with a unique cultural quandary. Simplistic cries to “put an end to vandalism” do not appear to be a viable option, any more than naive assumptions that what these artists really want is just to be shown in galleries and museums. We probably need a more reasonable approach to the whole concept of “public art,” in all of its legal implications.

In Rage is Back, of course, Adam Mansbach doesn’t need to provide any big solutions. He’s having too much fun with all of the problems. And in the end his book succeeds as a celebration of the human spirit, in the form of street artists who refuse to be swept away into criminal oblivion.

Rage2NOTE: J.Period, in collaboration with the author, has put together a mixtape to serve as a superb aural accompaniment for your Rage is Back reading experience. The mixtape features Talib Kweli, Common, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Black Thought, the Kid Daytona, and more. Click here to download the entire mixtape. http://www.jperiod.com/rageisback/

 

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