Adam Mansbach’s First Cult Classic

[This is a reprint of an article I first wrote at an old blog: Suspicious Looking Character. I’m going to be referencing it soon for another piece and thought I’d start aggregating some wide-scattered pieces here on Medium. Full disclosure, I think my questions bored Adam, he’s an intellectual dude, and I was asking about more plot driven elements of his book. He’s also a pro, so he answered in a gamely fashion.]

My favorite read of 2012 was Angry Black White Boy (originally published back in 2005). I should’ve read it sooner give that I had bought and read Adam Mansbach’s first novel (Shackling Water) ten years ago. I thought Shackling was solid and did a great job detailing the pains of the creative process. He built a nice woodshed in that first novel.

People may soon go back and re-read some of Mansbach’s work if 2013 lives up to expectations. His first novel of the year –Rage is Back — dropped yesterday. Temperamentally it feels like a companion piece to Angry Black White Boy (ABWB) his 2005 cult classic (it says so right on the cover).

I haven’t read RAGE beyond the first pages , so my “companion” claim may just be wishful thinking. It is clear that Mansbach has maintained his confident hand in crafting dialogue. And through subsequent novels and forays into other media, he can still make a story hum.

ABWB is essential a racial satire that can move the crowd. There’s no denying Mansbach cares primarily about character, but that doesn’t mean he gives story or theme lower priorities. Macon (the main character) is a living breathing Columbia student and he is the gravitational center of the book. Yet the book drips with race. It’s not just a theme — it’s the prism through which the reader experiences every page. I went and asked Adam about the driving forces behind ABWB. Was he concerned primarily with character or theme ? Did he have to work hard to keep all the elements spinning? Or once they got in motion it was a matter of tending to them accordingly? Adam?

Man, you’re taking me back. Anything I say is going to be an approximation; not only was that book published in ’05, but I wrote it mostly in 2000, during my second year of grad school (the reason it didn’t come out until ’05 is another story). With that book, more than any of my others, I was conscious of wanting to riff off of a clear, existing body of literature — the canon of American race novels. I wanted to re-imagine or remix the American race novel, bring it up to date by focusing the lens on whiteness, white privilege, the possibilities and limitations of this so-called “down” white boy — and also to make it, for lack of a better word, postmodern, in the sense that Macon has read all that literature too, and sort of sees himself in relation to Bigger Thomas and all these other icons. Macon as a character was very clear to me, because I’d been thinking about (and living, on some levels) the pathology of the white hip hopper for many years. My initial attempts to write this story were even earlier — a screenplay, when I was nineteen. That version was very earnest, and it didn’t work. Finding the satirical voice, realizing I could be freewheeling and absurdist, was what unlocked the book for me. There’s a denseness of allusion and language to the book that was really just me going for it — trying to get the energy of hip hop, and of Macon’s brain, onto the page. I had a mission with that book — to jumpstart a conversation about race, because I was so deeply frustrated with the way the language around race had devolved.

I was surprised how much ABWB followed a conventional crime novel plot. Working in literary fiction, is it taboo to talk about plot?

It’s not taboo at all — I’ve never had an aversion to plotting; it’s as important an element of the craft as any, though as I tell my students, all good plot should flow from character, rather than the other way around, and I think that holds true in crime or in literary fiction. I didn’t set out for ABWB to follow those conventions, but the three-act structure may be a sort of holdover from the early screenplay — or it may simply be that three act structure became such a convention because it’s effective. I’ve always enjoyed plotting — and yes, a lot of my understanding of what is satisfying in storytelling does come from film, as the dominant medium of the time. In particular, I’ve always admired really tightly scripted, smart crime films — heists, capers, cons, grifts. I can’t get enough of those, if they’re done well. Working on THE DEAD RUN (and also on RAGE IS BACK, which is “literary” but also a heist story) certainly made me hone those chops. TDR was fun because I had to make sure I understood the parameters, and that I could enjoy myself within them. As somebody whose first love was MCing, parameters are a wonderful thing, whether it’s 4/4, 92-beats-per-minute or “end every chapter with a cliffhanger and interweave four POVs.” GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP got written because I wanted to see if I could do something within a set of parameters, too. But I think my whole approach to plotting changed after THE END OF THE JEWS; I started that book with no idea where it was going, and it was a painful and seemingly endless process. I’m happy with the result, but afterward I resolved to do things a little differently.

How about “wiggers.” First the term. It can’t separate itself from racial hate while purportedly describing a white person who is down. I personally find using the term tricky in writing. Certainly not out of political correctness. I find on the page it just doesn’t define character. What’s you’re take on it? Also I’m wondering if you have a short list of, um, down-white-boy fiction you think captures the character type accurately.

I’m glad it’s fallen from favor. Ultimately, it’s a word the denigrates white people by comparing them to black people. I have no use for it, and aside from making that point in ABWB, I think I steered clear. Though the publisher did try to make me call the book “American Wigger.” Thank goodness I held my ground on that one. I think there are a handful of people who have done interesting work around race, hip hop and whiteness, though not many fiction writers. I’d cite the poet Kevin Coval, the playwright Danny Hoch, and the essayist William “Upski” Wimsatt.

I’m looking forward to RAGE IS BACK. In the run-up to your pub date, do you find yourself distracted? I mean you’ve got a mixtape dropping and the audio book’s cast (Danny Hoch, GZA, and Wyatt Cenac) is stacked. I’m really excited. It’s my first novel since 2008, and it’s the most fun I ever had writing a book — more than GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP, even, which took me like 40 minutes to write. It’s the first book I’ve written in first person (well, except GTFTS), which turned out to be incredibly fun; the whole thing rides on the voice of the narrator, this brilliant eighteen-year-old stoner whose parents are famous graffiti writers; a lot of crazy shit happens, and he’s gotta sell you on it through the humor and believability of the voice. I felt free writing it, and I had the plot worked out before I started, and it was just a blast. As far as being distracted — only in good ways. I’m juggling more projects now than I used to. In the run-up to RAGE, I’ve gotta do edits on THE DEAD RUN, I’m under contract to adapt a book for the screen, I’ve got the tour to plan. But it’s all good shit.

Having talked with Adam and read him from the start, I know one thing for sure: the kid is ambitious. He hasn’t disappointed yet. RAGE IS BACK may just turn out to be the second cult classic on his bibliography. Then again with a thriller slated for March 2013 (the above mentioned The Dead Run) Mansbach might find himself in December looking at that “cult” author label like a set of too small pajamas.