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A Masterpiece of Descriptive Writing
on January 13, 2016
It is impossible to read either The Flamethrowers or Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner's first novel, and not notice the unique, brilliant and at times almost poetic descriptive prose that helps set her writing apart. The images Kushner conjures up with her prose are far more vivid than any photos could ever be, often giving the reader the feeling that they have stepped inside the story. She is able to do this by being a great writer, by noticing everything - nothing escapes her gaze - and by writing about what she knows and what she loves, or at least enjoys. And Kushner always writes as though she's been around the block. Several times, in fact.
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.