The story opens in 2005, long after James Q. Wilson advised replacing every broken window and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sanitized Times Square for Kansas tourists desperate to see the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber-Disney co-production on ice. Our ricocheting narrator is Kilroy Dondi Vance, “a mocha teenager” with a funkadelic soul. He warns us early on that he’s always high, “but in a charming, articulate way.” Fair enough — he is pretty charming, but his drug use is what gets him expelled from a tony Manhattan prep school that he refers to as the “Whoopty Whoo Ivy League We’s a Comin’ Academy.” (He attended on the “Let’s Give a Clever Young Colored Boy a Chance to Transcend His Race Scholarship.”) Exasperated, his hot-tempered mother has thrown him out of the house, and so, homeless and with his college prospects scuttled, he falls back on sponging off old friends and dealing pot.
There’s no resisting this endearing stoner, “a nerd with swagger,” as he riffs on everything from Madison Avenue to yuppies’ racial anxiety. The opening pages stretch out like the chaotic New York City subway map, but the story resolves into a quirky tale of comeuppance involving Dondi’s errant father, Billy Rage.
In the late 1980s, Rage was a member of the Immortal Five, a world-famous graffiti gang that delighted New Yorkers but infuriated the NYPD Vandal Squad. “What you call mass email,” Dondi says, “my parents called hitting trains.” A maniacal policeman named Officer Bracken chased the gang down and shot one of its members in cold blood on the night Dondi was born. Crazy with grief, Rage protested the killing by painting accusations all over town, but Bracken struck back with a massive manhunt and a multimillion-dollar fine. With nowhere left to hide, Rage finally fled to Mexico, abandoning Dondi and his mother.
Well, now Rage is back. For Dondi, so full of anger and longing, this is a chance to bond with the man behind the giant letters. But Rage has other plans. Fortified with Amazonian drugs and mysticism, he’s determined to destroy Officer Bracken’s political career with a historic bombing.
Graffiti bombing, that is — an unprecedented campaign to paint every subway car in New York in a single night. But talk of “bombing” the subway system is a bittersweet reminder of how much has changed in the Big Apple and in America since the heyday of those bubblelicious designs. Dondi claims he knows “more about nostalgia than anybody my age should,” and it’s true. He’s spent his whole life soaking in the day-glo hues of those shadowy kings and queens — his parents’ friends and colleagues who once sprayed their magic with intoxicated glee. But now they’re jailed or dead or co-opted by advertising firms. We scrubbed away all the graffiti only to replace it with the flat colors of the Terrorism Threat Advisory Scale.