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.