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Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award, was just named a Top Ten Book of 2013 by the New York Times Book Review and one of Time magazine's top ten fiction books. Kushner's first novel, Telex from Cuba, was also a finalist for a National Book Award and was reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. The Flamethrowers, even more ambitious and brilliant, is the riveting story of a young artist and the worlds she encounters in New York and Rome in the mid-1970s--by turns underground, elite, and dangerous.
The year is 1975 and Reno--so-called because of the place of her birth--has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world--artists have colonized a deserted and industrial SoHo, are staging actions in the East Village, and are blurring the line between life and art. Reno meets a group of dreamers and raconteurs who submit her to a sentimental education of sorts. Ardent, vulnerable, and bold, she begins an affair with an artist named Sandro Valera, the semi-estranged scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle empire. When they visit Sandro's family home in Italy, Reno falls in with members of the radical movement that overtook Italy in the seventies. Betrayal sends her reeling into a clandestine undertow.
The Flamethrowers is an intensely engaging exploration of the mystique of the feminine, the fake, the terrorist. At its center is Kushner's brilliantly realized protagonist, a young woman on the verge. Thrilling and fearless, this is a major American novel from a writer of spectacular talent and imagination.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-02-18
- Reviewer: Staff
This rich second novel from Kushner (Telex from Cuba) takes place in late-’70s New York City and Italy. Reno is a young filmmaker “shopping for experiences,” who, as the novel opens, is attempting to set a land-speed record on her Moto Valera motorcycle in Nevada, only to crash instead. A flashback to New York finds her mixing with a group of artists, among whom she meets Sandro Valera, whose wealthy family manufactures the Moto Valera. Soon they are romantically entwined, and Reno accompanies Sandro on a visit home to Italy. She risks alienating the Valeras by going to their factory to film labor unrest, only to catch Sandro there in flagrante delicto with his cousin Talia. Distraught, she flees with Valera family servant Gianni to Rome, where she discovers Gianni is involved with a volatile protest movement. Snippets from the life of Sandro’s father’s run in intriguing contrast to Reno’s story, presenting his WWI experiences, childhood in Alexandria, Egypt, and the founding of his company. Kushner’s psychological explorations of her characters are incisive, the novel is peppered with subtle ’70s details, and it bursts with you-are-there depictions of its time and places. Agent Susan Golomb, Susan Golomb Agency. (Apr.)
Art, youth and motorcycles
When Rachel Kushner sat down to write her second novel, she had three images taped to the wall above her desk: A pretty young blonde woman, face painted for war, with an X of tape across her lips, which eventually became the cover image; a well-heeled engineer standing with his creation, a 1971 Ducati motorcycle; and two men racing by in a primitive cycle and sidecar, circa World War I.
The Flamethrowers, then, is a sort of weaving together of these disparate lives. Set partly in prewar Italy at the dawn of the Futurist movement, partly in the art world of New York in the 1970s, and converging briefly in the riots of the Autonomist movement in 1970s Rome, this is ultimately the story of a young woman called Reno who is reborn again and again through her acts of defiant grace.
In this story, art is not just an imitation of life but also life itself. Acts of life begin and end as performance, within the inescapable prison of self-consciousness. But this isn’t boilerplate postmodernism either; it’s a complex tale of youth and the need to escape oneself and one’s past, a story about time and speed and violence, about the roles we play, willingly and unwillingly, in the vast, closed system of the human stage. And it’s about a young woman, confused and yet self-possessed, remarkable in her search for meaning.
When Reno meets Sandro Valera, famed sculptor and prodigal heir to Italy’s greatest moto-empire, she has just moved to New York to live as an artist. He takes her in, and through him she meets the art-world elite. Her own work is still nebulous, unformed but for a notion of line and a love of movement. Chance intervenes—or as one of the characters has it, Reno “put herself in the way of life”—and her first serious project begins to take shape. But in The Flamethrowers, momentum has a way of swerving into the ditch. In Italy, on her way to make a film with the Valera race team, events bring Reno crashing down hard.
Battered and bruised, she finds herself in a world of violence and anarchism, a brief encounter that is ultimately more positive and humane than the high-flying world she fled. Because life is not simple, nothing meaningful can be easy. And so away we go, this novel seems to say, racing off-road into the future.
Read a Q&A with Rachel Kushner about The Flamethrowers.