Eighteen-year-old Kilroy Dondi Vance has pretty much messed up his young life at the beginning of Adam Mansbach’s [[[Rage is Back]]]. He’s been expelled from his elite prep school, broken up with his girlfriend and has been kicked out of his mother’s apartment. While couch surfing between selected friends, trying not to wear out his welcome, he begins to hear rumors that his father Billy Rage (a famed graffiti artist missing for sixteen years), has resurfaced, leaving underground tunnels awash in graffiti. Ostensibly he has returned to settle on old score with Anastacio Bracken, a former cop – now President of the MTA and mayoral candidate, who hounded their old crew, killing one of their most vital members. But it also gives Dondi a chance to know and understand his father and to go on adventure with him, if he can find it in his heart to put years of hurt and anger aside.
I loved this novel from the moment I picked it up and heard Dondi’s fresh, inventive and confident voice relating the story of his unique parents, history and point of view. Though he didn’t grow up when he would have remembered the graffiti culture in which his parents were steeped as both innovators and leaders, he has taken their history, and that of the graffiti tribes, to heart. He uses it to create the mythology of his father and his absence in his life, and to explain the embittered woman his mother has become. Dondi is an extremely precocious teenager; his ruminations are long, rambling and sophisticated, and just maybe slightly unreliable. I wondered if I would get tired of his posturing (oftentimes he reminded me of a modern-day Holden Caulfield), but as interspersed as it is with surprising confessions, insight and vulnerability, it held my attention throughout. Mansbach deftly explores an incredible time in NYC history and he makes the art of graffiti breathe with careful conveyance of its lifestyle, music, code of honor, and talented and colorful people, while incorporating philosophy, sociology, and a little magical realism for good measure. I wouldn’t want to go back to a New York City filled with graffiti-laden billboards and street corners, but Mansbach illustrates the ways in which it is a value filled avenue of expression and legitimate art form.
The novel is set in 2005, and frequently flashes back to New York City of the 1980’s. Luckily for me, I had the slimmest foothold in knowing what what was going on from, like Dondi, having heard stories from family, and from having seen pictures and heard music from the time he was talking about, so it was much more accessible for me from the start in a way that it might not be for other readers. Like [[[Ready Player One]]] and [[[The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao]]], [[[Rage is Back]]] it requires an adjustment period to get used to the references and the voice, but it is worth taking the time to get to know these characters and to experience their journey. Highly Recommended.