Customer Review

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable when it isn't irritating, January 13, 2013
This review is from: Rage Is Back: A Novel (Hardcover)
About a third of Rage Is Back is an excruciatingly irritating mix of ultra-hip cultural references and D-list celebrity name dropping. I was indifferent to another third. The remaining third approaches brilliance. Stray sentences, random thoughts, sometimes entire pages shine like polished platinum.

Kilroy Dondi Vance is a nineteen-year-old mixed race drug dealer. His mother's family is from Trinidad and his father is half-Jewish. Having attended Manhattan's third-most-prestigious prep school on a scholarship, he's now an Angry Young Man whose mother, Karen, has kicked him out of her apartment. Dondi's also something of a graffiti historian. Karen is worried that Dondi is turning into Billy, Dondi's absent father. Back in the day, Billy (a/k/a Rage) and Karen (a/k/a Wren 209) tagged trains together. Before he fled to Mexico, Billy got himself into a mess with a transit cop-turned-demon named Bracken, the man who killed Billy's friend and fellow graffiti writer. When Billy returns to Manhattan sixteen years later, Bracken is running for mayor and Dondi ... well, as you'd expect from an Angry Young Man, Dondi is none too pleased with Billy.

Still, after Dondi gets together with Billy and his old crew of graffiti writers, a plan to take revenge against Bracken takes shape, and therein lies the plot. The writers embark on an Ocean's Eleven scheme, complete with ensemble cast, designed to thwart Bracken's ambition. When the novel stays focused on that scheme, it's fun and lively and supremely entertaining. To the extent that the novel serves as a fictional history of (and tribute to) graffiti writers, it is fascinating. To the extent that it relies on time travel portals and other supernatural weirdness, it derails.

When a novel screams "Look how modern and literary and determinedly ironic I am," it generally isn't a novel I enjoy reading. Some writers, Adam Mansbach tells us, can't rely on a straightforward narrative because they're too "busy trying to prove how smart they are." Exactly. Mansbach is one of those annoyingly intrusive writers who talks to you about what he's writing while he's writing it ("You recall a few chapters back when I ..."). Being up-to-the-second cool means Mansbach can rag on Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe because their psychedelic prose is passé in an age where up-to-the-second fiction is inspired by designer drugs that Timothy Leary could only dream about. And Mansbach can smugly dis Bob Dylan because, you know, dude is old and Mansbach isn't (yet).

Most of the novel is written in the first person from Dondi's perspective. For reasons I can't fathom, a character named Cloud 9 takes over the narration in chapter 10. His voice is a bit more "street" than Dondi's, but not much. In another literary affectation (Mansbach seems determined to try them all), Cloud 9 doesn't bother to set off dialog with quotation marks. Chapter 11 returns to Dondi's perspective ("hey, it's me, Dondi again"). Ugh.

In addition to being artistic, the characters are impossibly erudite. Dengue Fever, for instance, places the three-dimensional letters he builds in the context of hieroglyphics and illuminated manuscripts and the mystery vowels of ancient Hebrew. My eyes glazed over when Dondi started talking about Theseus and Pirithous and "my man Odysseus." That's just a little too precious for me. On quite a few occasions, I was less than convinced by Dondi's voice, particularly when he's nattering on about the uncoolness of white boys. The voice just didn't seem authentic, you feel me?

Despite my griping, I enjoyed much of Rage Is Back. Mansbach incorporates a short story into the plot that was supposedly written by a drug dealer. It contains the best sustained writing in the book. The story forsakes the literary trickiness that mars the surrounding novel, opting instead to tell a straightforward, powerful tale. When Mansbach turns his talent to descriptive writing, he paints expressive pictures of dank subway tunnels and captures the mixture of artistry and audacity required to tag trains. And underlying all the nonsense is a good story, almost a great story, that for significant stretches is well told and nonsense-free. It also delivers an important but well-buried message about the nature of fame. Patience is rewarded as the initial struggle to connect with the narrative pays off in the final chapters.
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