Adam Mansbach has a penchant for provocative titles. His previous novels include Angry Black White Boy and The End Of The Jews, but his visibility skyrocketed with the release of his bedtime-story picture book Go The Fuck To Sleep. His fourth novel, Rage Is Back, continues his hyper-articulate, authentic blend of hip-hop culture, street art, and youthful disillusionment, but his compelling style doesn’t mask the book’s structural issues.
Eighteen-year-old Dondi Vance, the son of two famous graffiti artists, is a nomad in New York City, having been kicked out of his prep school and his mother’s apartment for dealing marijuana. His absent father, Billy Rage, is rumored to have returned to the city, painting cryptic messages in underground tunnels. When Dondi finds his father in shambles, he learns the history of his parents’ generation.
On the night Dondi is born, Billy and his fellow artists tag New York subway trains, and are chased and cornered by transit cop Anastacio Bracken, who allegedly shoots and kills one of the taggers. Billy unravels, becoming singularly obsessed with spreading the message about his friend’s murder, until police scrutiny grows so intense that he skips town for 16 years. Returning just as Bracken is mounting a mayoral campaign, Billy unites with his wife, son, and everyone else from the golden age to sabotage Bracken’s chances.
Rage Is Back isn’t trying to recreate or preserve the history of street art in New York City. One of the most refreshing aspects of Mansbach’s story is the hyper-detailed drug trips and supernatural streak of magical realism in an urban landscape. This tendency could be extremely frustrating, but at these points, Dondi’s dialect becomes less intense and Mansbach’s language grows more vivid. Whenever the plot stops for one of these interludes, such as Dondi going on a hallucinogenic spirit quest to better understand his father’s journey back to New York, or showing his elders the rift in the space-time continuum at the top of an apartment staircase, it’s clear that this isn’t just a novel capitalizing on the recent resurgence of graffiti art in popular consciousness.
But the mostly adventurous and intriguing side quests eventually hew to the main plot, which doesn’t have any of the interesting complexities of Mansbach’s characters. Billy Rage returns, his son helps mediate a large-scale alliance of graffiti artists to mobilize against Bracken, and the plan goes forward. There are minor hiccups along the way: The one chapter Dondi doesn’t narrate contains the most violence in the novel, but it unnecessarily deviates from Dondi’s perspective and only vaguely hints at the complication of Bracken’s villainy, showing that not all of Mansbach’s pauses for character depth are necessary.
And once the plot reaches the final third, nothing really stands in the way of success. Dondi and his family don’t achieve happiness or complete understanding, but the landing is so smooth that the few loose ends feel insignificant. Still, with Rage Is Back, Mansbach has crafted another labor of love, and that stylistic dedication outshines the structurally weak plot.