Adam Mansbach rekindles golden age of graffiti

Adam Mansbach is a novelist best known for a parody. But don’t think that he bears any ill will toward Go the F**k to Sleep, his hilarious, bestselling ode to toddler-whipped parents.

“It’s a funny thing; I think people expect that I’m somehow embittered by being known for that book, and I’m definitely not,” says Mansbach, who appears at Books & Books Saturday in Coral Gables and Jan. 20 in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s opened some doors for me. I’m grateful for all of the attention. People who know me are tickled by what happened because it was an honest manifestation of my humor, and it hit the zeitgeist in a weird way.”

Now, however, Mansbach hopes readers turn their attention to his engaging new novel, Rage is Back (Viking, $26.95). It’s narrated by the wily teenage Dondi Kilroy Vance, the wisecracking biracial son of New York City’s most notorious graffiti artist of the golden age, Billy Rage (Dondi’s mom, Karen, was an infamous artist back in the day, too). “Three hours into my earthly existence, Billy went bombing, because that’s what a fiend does,” Dondi tells us. “Triumph and tragedy are met identically. Boredom too. Something happens, or nothing happens, and you need a fix.”

Billy flees the city after bombing (spray painting) one too many trains with a message accusing a Vandal Squad cop of murdering his friend, and he doesn’t return for 16 years, when Dondi has been kicked out of his prestigious prep school (the “Whoopty Who Ivy League We’s A Comin’ Academy”) for selling weed. What happens when the family reunites — and by family we mean whole weird, wild tribe of graffiti’s best, brightest and craziest — involves father-son dysfunction, time travel, mind-bending hallucinogens, shamanism and an epic graffiti caper to restore the balance of power in New York City’s tunnels — and to turn those trains once again into rolling works of old-school art.

“What’s great about Adam is that his writing is often funny, but it’s never silly or light,” says Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver, via email. “While reading Rage is Back I’d be laughing pretty hard at some scene and only later realize just how much serious business the scene had dealt with. It’s takes a special touch to make a reader both laugh and gasp.

“As a kid who grew up in New York City in the ’70’s and ’80s it was also just fun to see that long-gone New York City evoked in the pages of this novel. Adam doesn’t ignore the decay and crime that blighted those decades, but he also insists the time period generated true magic, true American art.”

Mansbach, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., grew up as a fan of hip-hop in the 1980s and ’90s, and the beats drew him to the world of graffiti. He spent a big chunk of his life preparing to write this novel, even if he didn’t realize it.

“Back then, when hip-hop was under the cultural radar, you had to be conversant in all parts of it,” he says. “I was a bad graffiti writer, never serious about it, but to be part of that community you had to be knowledgeable to all the elements of it, music, dancing, the visuals. And the visuals of graffiti always appealed to me.

“To me, graffiti writers were the eccentrics and mad geniuses of hip-hop. They labored in obscurity. There were so many paradoxes in their art and how they thought about it. It was art and vandalism. … Even the words to describe it: They’d use ‘beautify’ and ‘destroy’ interchangeably, with all this language of violence and destruction — bombing trains, killing lines. There was always something epic about graffiti.”

Rage is Back is a bracingly funny book, largely due to Dondi’s magnetic narration (“I was gonna do this as a footnote,” he explains, in describing one scene, “but I think it’s disrespectful to make a motherf—– rove his eyes all the way down to the bottom of the page and up again — plus, if the words matter, print them in a font I can read, you know?”).

Mansbach said he’s never had so much fun writing anything. A white writer telling a story from the point of view of a black teenager is often eyeballed uneasily by critics, but Mansbach gets Dondi just right, and nobody is complaining yet.

“It’s something I don’t do lightly,” says Mansbach, who is also the author of Angry Black White Boy, a satire about a white kid deeply invested in hip-hop. “I’ve been engaged with these issues in a pretty serious way, and the stakes are higher. But that’s true any time you’re writing a character of another race or genre, a male writer writing a female character or a straight writer writing a gay character.”

For all his fine comic writing, Mansbach doesn’t neglect the more serious aspects of New York City’s battle over graffiti in Rage is Back.

“The war on graffiti in many ways was a war on young people, young people of color in particular,” he says. “The reaction to graffiti opened the door and ushered in a lot of what we see today in public policy: the zero tolerance policy, misdemeanors being elevated to felony. Graffiti is also a window into sociology. … It’s poignant: The guys who invented graffiti watched it die in front of them. By the ’90s the city had won. They buffed trains clean before they left the yard.”

If Rage is Back is any indication, Mansbach is nostalgic for the old days.

“The evolution of the art on the train happened so rapidly, it’s a compressed history of art, like going from cave drawings to Cubism in five years,” he marvels. “There was an intensity to it. A lot of the old-school writers said things evolved so fast you couldn’t leave the city…. They’d say, ‘I can’t go on vacation, I gotta sit on the benches and see what rolls by.’

“There was nothing remunerative to it. These kids were devoted to it with a purity and a drive that is hard to imagine today. The world is so different. Now they’d be Instagramming it.”

Exploring such complexity, of course, is one of the things Mansbach likes best about being a writer.

“Complexity always draws me — like loving your kid to death but being willing to do anything to get out of the room.”