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The Flamethrowers Paperback – January 14, 2014
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Guest Review of Flamethrowers
By Lauren Groff
Every so often, you’ll come across a book that burns so hot and bright it’ll sear a shadow on your vision. For a while afterwards, everything you look at will have the book’s imprint on it; your world will be colored in the book’s tones, and you will glimpse the book’s characters on the street and feel your heart knocking in your chest for a few blocks, as if you’d escaped a close call.
This is how I felt after I read Rachel Kushner’s brilliant The Flamethrowers. The night I finished it, I dreamt of racing motorcycles across sun-shot salt-flats and of floating in glimmering Italian swimming pools. In the morning, I tried to describe the book to a friend but I eventually faltered into silence.
This is a beautiful book, I finally said, a book full of truth, a book about art and motorcycle racing and radicalism, about innocence and speed and stepping up to a dangerous brink, a book very deeply about the late seventies in New York City and its powerful blend of grittiness and philosophical purity.
Oh, said my friend. So. What is it about?
I tried again. I said: It’s a love story, about a young artist under the sway of an older, established artist, scion of a motorcycle family, who betrays her, and she joins up with an underground group in Italy. It feels like a contemporary European novel, philosophical and intelligent, with an American heart and narrative drive, I said.
Oh, said my friend.
Just read the book, I said and my friend did, and loved it to speechlessness, as well. Wow, is all he could say when he returned the book to me.
I don’t blame him. The truth is, this is a strange and mysterious novel, a subtle novel. Much of its power comes from the precision of Kushner’s language and how carefully she allows the flashes of perception to drive the narrative forward. See Reno, the offbeat narrator, describing ski racing to her lover, Sandro, saying, “Ski racing was drawing in time.” Suddenly you can see what she means, a body’s crisp slaloming down the white slope, the way the skier draws a perfect serpent down the clock.
Or see Reno, racing her motorcycle: “Far ahead of me, the salt flats and mountains conspired into one puddled vortex. I began to feel the size of this place. Or perhaps I did not feel it, but the cycle, whose tires marked its size with each turn, did. I felt a tenderness for them, speeding along under me.” There is something deeply eerie happening under the words, something on the verge of tipping over and spilling out; and, at the same time, a gentleness and innocence at the core of all that noise and speed.
Rachel Kushner is an unbelievably exciting writer, a writer of urgent and beautiful sentences and novels that are vast in their ambition and achievement. I finished it months ago, but The Flamethrowers—startling, radiant—still haunts me.
*Starred Review* In her smash-hit debut, Telex from Cuba (2008), Kushner took on corporate imperialism and revolution, themes that also stoke this knowing and imaginative saga of a gutsy yet naive artist from Nevada. Called Reno when she arrives in New York in 1977, she believes that her art has “to involve risk,” but she’s unprepared for just how treacherous her entanglements with other artists will be. Reno’s trial-by-fire story alternates provocatively with the gripping tale of Valera, an Italian who serves in a motorcycle battalion in WWI, manufactures motorcycles, including the coveted Moto Valera, and makes a fortune in the rubber industry by oppressing Indian tappers in Brazil. These worlds collide when Reno moves in with Sandro Valera, a sculptor estranged from his wealthy family, and tries to make art by racing a Moto Valera on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Ultimately, Reno ends up in Italy, where militant workers protest against the Valeras. As Reno navigates a minefield of perfidy, Kushner, with searing insights, contrasts the obliteration of the line between life and art in hothouse New York with life-or-death street battles in Rome. Adroitly balancing astringent social critique with deep soundings of the complex psyches of her intriguing, often appalling characters, Kushner has forged an incandescently detailed, cosmopolitan, and propulsively dramatic tale of creativity and destruction. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
While her brilliant prose steals the show, Kushner has other arrows in her quiver, however; the main characters are well drawn and believable, and the story lines of her historical fiction are always interesting, often compelling, and sometimes humorous. Reno, the female protagonist in The Flamethrowers, seems to go through life letting life happen to her, rather than orchestrating or seizing it. Somehow, despite her passivity, she manages to be an interesting character herself, in part because she often finds herself in the middle of some rather significant events, and is generally surrounded by fascinating characters who are active participants in their own lives. It's almost as though Reno is the lead character in The Perils of Pauline, waltzing through all kinds of chaos and calamity occurring around her, only to emerge mostly unscathed from it all. Reno rides a motorcycle, but the characters she latches onto - including a somewhat shady lover who seems to drift into and out of her life - are what propel her along.
The novel - a sort of historical fiction based loosely on some disparate actual events - moves through various locations and periods that somehow become interwoven into whole cloth by the novel's end. The reader time-travels from a brief, long-ago, far-away war scene to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and then to the New York art scene of the mid-1970s, where she meets the younger son of an Italian motorcycle manufacturer. They become lovers. From there, she goes back to Bonneville for a land speed record attempt. Don't depart yet; the journey has just begun. You're about to travel to the motorcycle factory in Italy, and then back in time to a Brazilian rubber plantation that furnishes some of the raw material used in making tires, and then back to Italy, before going back in time again. A revolt breaks out in Italy, and after getting caught up in the revolt and hanging out with some activists trying to avoid the police, Reno makes her way out of the country, eventually ending up back in New York, sadder but wiser than when she left. Somehow, it all works, with that brilliant descriptive prose painting a vivid, often gritty picture throughout. Bravo.
Kushner manages to have Reno, an originally-naïve character always beholden to the insistent of men, to inhabit extremely-niche settings, New York City’s underground art scene, as well as the politically-turbulent Italian capital of the 1970s, without obfuscating the novel’s thrust in the jargon and high-brow miscellany those circles often effuse. In the same breath, a self-important artist will with nostalgic hindsight compare his work to that of the Futurists in the early twentieth century and casually wave off the consequences of an abandoned, unplanned baby. They are seen for what they are: privileged egoists whose problems are largely self-imposed.
Reno, who grows up around redneck alcoholic motorheads in near-apocalyptic Nevada, is described with grimy precision as a girl having “cake box appeal” “who may dial the same disconnected number more than once”, and she in turn describes her fellow characters as having “a palpable sense of their own future, who constructed plans and then followed them”. The artists are all adopting a pose, gut-checking each other and unknowing passersby according to some misplaced, arrogant impulse to be at the forefront of a self-defined avant garde. This is demonstrated manifestly when Reno is taken to Nevada so the skid marks of her Valera motorcycle can be recorded as art, as well as when a loose confederacy of them self-proclaim as the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. The opinions, derived from the various relative social positions of the characters in the novel, both those of the subversive NYC art scene as well as the upper-echelons of a Fascist-backwashed Italy in the 1970s, refuse to conform to a bland, historically-revisionist liberal worldview that shames the assumed orthodoxy as a cover for hyper political-correctness. Much of contemporary American fiction submits to a collective ideological rectitude, the unspoken safety valve that helps books sell because no reader is made in any way uncomfortable. Indeed, these rich crowds of characters, both in pretended social and actual capital, especially the oxidizing Italian post-aristocrats, are faintly exposed for their vanity, their blinding ego, and most of all, for their witless decline into the self-referential navel-gazing of their own flawed microcosm all while assuming themselves a caste apart from the rest of the world. This is managed deftly by Kushner without verging into a hyper-cynicism where everything is rhetorically destroyed and nothing is valorized or affirmed. Art remains intact, by the novel’s end, as a noble, human endeavor, often diluted or muddled by the short-sighted political or glamorous interests of the artist characters themselves. Art is never the problem, nor is it conferred the same closed-circle, arrogant status into which the artists reveal themselves.