Ten More Books for Readers of Rage is Back
One thing I love about writing novels is that each project is surrounded by a discrete set of sources, influences, and inspirations. Rage is Back is a story about a decimated graffiti crew of the '80s staging an epic comeback in 2005 to take down a dirty cop who's now running for mayor; it's also got crazy rainforest drugs, minor incidents of time travel, a large cast of eccentrics, and a son's reckoning with the father he's never known. There are a lot of worlds to juggle, and the books that helped me do it are just as diverse. Here are ten worth diving into.
Rule of the Bone, Russell Banks
Rage is Back rests solely on the voice of its wisecracking, digressive, and hopefully charming narrator, eighteen-year-old Dondi Vance--it's up to him to take the reader on a wild ride, and sell him on some stuff that challenges reality as we know it. In Rule of the Bone, Banks attempts a similar gambit with The Bone, a gutterpunk from upstate New York who ends up reinventing himself in Jamaica. The fact that it works, brilliantly, gave me the confidence to throw my lot in with Dondi.
2666, Roberto Bolaño
In this none hundred page masterpiece, written as he was dying, Bolaño breaks every rule of fiction imaginable: narratives fracture and double back on themselves, plot lines dissolve just as they're screaming toward resolution, new characters are introduced two pages from the book's end. Through the totalizing, frenzied power of his vision, Bolaño imbues 2666 with a terrifying, beautiful, sometimes hilarious logic all its own. Reading it is exhausting--in the best possible way.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
I first read Wolfe's lyrical nonfiction account of the 1960s adventures of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters when I was in high school, and I go back to it every few years. No one has ever done a better job writing about hallucinogens--gotten inside the drug experience--better than Wolfe; the fact that he did it by osmosis rather than consumption makes this book all the more impressive. He balances verbal acrobatics with precise control, and that's not easy.
The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City, Jennifer Toth
A fascinating account of the hundreds of people who make their homes underground--some of them in elaborate, highly structured communities, others isolated in bunker-like warrens. Highly readable, deeply thoughtful, and very helpful for me, since the Mole People and the tunnels figure heavily in Rage is Back.
Subway Art, Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper
The game-changing classic text of subway graffiti, first published in 1984. Along with the documentary Style Wars, these photographs helped to spread the movement worldwide, and canonize the styles evolving daily on the mobile steel canvases of New York City. Henry and Martha's photos gave writers the chance to study pieces in depth--as opposed to catching fleeting glimpses as the trains pulled into stations or rumbled across elevated tracks--thus contributing directly to the further evolution of style.
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
I wanted Rage is Back to be an adventure story, first and foremost: exhilarating and unpredictable, like the books I read as a kid. But Treasure Island is here for a specific reason: the chapter where Jim hands off narrative duties to Captain Smollett, to tell a part of the story for which Jim wasn't present. I remember being struck by that, even as a kid--I'd never seen it before, and it was thrilling and weird. So I did the same thing in Rage, with Dondi passing the baton to Cloud 9 for one rollicking chapter.
The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
Lethem weaves one magical element into this otherwise realistic, gritty, NYC-based book with confidence and understatement. My approach to the supernatural isn't quite the same as his--my characters spend a lot of time disbelieving and debating--but I admire the way he does it; this book made me think hard about what contemporary American "magic realism" (a terms I know Lethem hates, and I'm hesitant to use as well) looks like. Also, Jonathan's brother Blake, a.k.a. KEO, did the lettering on the cover of Rage is Back; he's a font of knowledge with a knowledge of fonts.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Jeff Chang
Nobody has done as thorough a job of painting the big-picture political history of hip-hop as my man Jeff: he frames the movement's developing aesthetics in the context of policy and poverty, post-industrialization and immigration. He narrates the tensions between youth and authority, art and commerce, neglect and confinement, with journalistic precision and scholarly vision.
Graffiti Kings, Jack Stewart
Stewart was an early graff scholar whose masters' thesis on graffiti was filed in 1982, and passed around among writers in its unpublished form for many years thereafter. Finally published a few years ago, it's like a long-awaited prequel to Subway Art, full of photos that document an earlier era, giving light to an older generation of writers. For me, after years of hearing more about these innovators that I'd seen, this was like unearthing a whole new strata in the fossil record.
Clockers, Richard Price
Rage is Back moves between many worlds--from Upper East Side prep schools to Crown Heights drug dens--and Price is a master of that kind of expansive fluidity. People always praise the versimillitude of his dialogue, but it's the level on which Price understands and empathizes with his characters that lets him put those choice words in their mouths.