has carved an unlikely path through the literary landscape, certainly not the
route suggested by English professors and MFA programs. After writing a few
respectable novels that explored race, art, and music, Mansbach achieved New York Times
status with Go the F**k to Sleep
, the faux children’s book birthed from a
sleep-deprived Facebook status update, which reached #1 on Amazon months before
it went on sale.
book, Rage is Back (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for January), tacks in yet
another new direction: New York graffiti artistry, with a dash of magical
realism. I’d interviewed Adam last year during his GTFTS travels, and was happy
to spend time with him again during his recent visit to Seattle. As a former
New Yorker, I found myself feeling misty and nostalgic for the times and places
depicted in Rage, and learned over the course of an afternoon pub session that
Mansbach used this book to explore his early New York days and, specifically,
his hip-hop roots.
A one-time graffiti
writer, Mansbach said “bombing” trains (translation: spray-painting subway
cars) was expected if you were a hip-hop kid. “At the
time that I got into hip hop, in about 86-87, the culture was kind of all of a
piece, and you were expected to be conversant in every aspect of it,” he said.
“So: DJ-ing, rapping, dancing, graffiti ... like, the kinetic, the sonic, the
published a hip-hop magazine. He rapped, DJ-ed, MC-ed and breakdanced. But he
learned that the graffiti artists were the eccentrics and “the mad geniuses of
hip hop.” While the musicians and dancers could do their thing in public,
“graffiti writers had to run around in the tunnels, in the dark, be all dirty
and grubby.” He found himself drawn to those mole people and their illicit art.
is filled with such eccentrics, including Billy Rage, the father
of narrator Dondi, who abandoned his infant son after the death of a graffiti
crew-mate. Sixteen years later, Billy is back in New York, where he reunites
with his son and his crew and conspires to take down the corrupt city official
who killed one of his own.
days, you won’t find graffiti on New York’s subways. The city that helped
launch that particular art form has scrubbed it away, like removing an unwanted
tattoo. This clearly bothers Mansbach, who feels that graffiti was not only a
visual representation of a certain kind of energy--art designed to move and
flow--but also literature. They were graffiti “writers,” he explained. And they
were telling a story.
that story, he believes, was a tribute to paradox: “fame and anonymity, at once; art and
vandalism, at once; creating and destroying, at once.”
While researching Rage, Mansbach
toured New York's subway tunnels and interviewed some of the legends of New York graffiti culture, including Phase 2, an aerosol artist from the 70s and 80s who pioneered the bubble style of graffiti lettering (and is the model for one of the book’s main characters). And at a time when
current artists such as Banksy are selling works for six figures, it pains Mansbach to see graffiti's pioneers slip further into obscurity, outliving the world they created.
Some of the early artists are still revered in other countries, but little-known in New
York. He likens it to an author being out of print in America, but a bestseller in Germany.
Rage is Back pays homage to those guys, and to the hip-hop culture on which Mansbach was raised.
Next up for Mansbach is another career tack: A supernatural thriller entitled
Dead Run, coming this fall.
“It involves dead people running.”
>Listen to two singles from the forthcoming Rage Is Back mixtape: "'The Next Chapter (Still Love H.E.R.)," featuring Common and J. Period, and "Rage is Back (Freestyle)," featuring Black Thought and J. Period
>See all of Adam's books; visit his website; find him on Twitter
>Trivia: Go the F**k to Sleep fans may know that the audiobook was
narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. The other two shortlisted narrators were
Christopher Walken and Werner Herzog, whose version you can listen to