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It’s the great American graffiti novel - Brooklyn Paper

It’s the great American graffiti novel

The writing on the walls: Novelist Adam Mansbach has penned a story deep in the golden age of the New York City graffiti scene.
Photo by Bess Adler

The golden era of New York hip-hop and graffiti lives — on the shelves of bookstores.

New York-reared penman Adam Mansbach — who made waves with his expletive-laden children’s book for adults “Go the F*** to Sleep” — is back with a new novel that delves into the city’s legendary graffiti and hip-hop scene, a uniquely New York movement that may have peaked more than 20 years ago.

“As much as anything else, this is a New York story,” said Mansbach about “Rage Is Back,” a new book put out by Viking. “It’s not a story that could take place anywhere else.”

The first-person narrative of protagonist Dondi Vance, the pot-dealing, down-on-his-luck son of two legendary graffiti writers, is written in the colloquial mix of slang, neologisms, and run-on rhythms familiar to the conversational “street” style seen in prose from writers like Junot Diaz — big words, right next to expletives.

The stylistic choice is indicative of some formative years, says the author.

Mansbach, who lived in Fort Greene as a student but now lives in Berkeley, Calif., says his experiences delving into the city’s hip-hop scene remain his most memorable.

“I feel like I’m a New Yorker more than anything else,” said Mansbach, who dabbled in graffiti-writing, emceeing and deejaying as a 20-something living in the city in the 90s, before settling for writing on pages rather than walls. “Moving to California has only confirmed that for me.”

Mansbach traces graffiti’s decline to the beginning of the 1990s — when the city got better at buffing out the taggers’ work — but he says the legacy of graffiti endures.

“The war on graffiti really ushered in a lot of present day reality; it was a thinly veiled war on young people of color in here,” he said. “Graffiti is an interesting window into the city’s policies around young people.”

As a writer, Mansbach says he’s attracted to the contradictions of graffiti, the tensions between “fame and anonymity, beautifying and destroying.”

Adam Mansbach reading “Rage is Back” with artwork by graffiti artist Blake “KEO” Letham at Powerhouse Arena [37 Main St. at Water Street in DUMBO, (718) 666–3049, www.powerhousearena.com] Jan. 16, 7 pm.

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at erosenberg@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2531. Follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.

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