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.
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is one of the most talked-about novels of the past twelve months. Although I haven’t been reading much literary fiction lately, I was impressed by this book’s excellent reviews and decided to give it a shot.
Set in 1970s New York and Rome, The Flamethrowers has a strong historical and political bent–yet much of the novel’s details are fictional. It begins with narrator Reno traveling to Utah to race her Moto Valera bike across the desert and photograph the tracks left behind in the sand. Reno, an impressionable 21-year-old artist, has joined the vibrant New York art scene and has an older, influential boyfriend, Sandro Valera, who has gifted her the motorcycle.
After crashing her bike during her land speed trial, Reno falls in with the Valera team, and they invite her to join them in Italy later in the year to race again. While in Italy (with Sandro), Reno inadvertently gets involved with a group of radicals who may or may not be involved in the abduction of Sandro’s older brother and owner of Valera motorcycles.
The Flamethrowers is rife with details and stories. It calls out the misogyny of the ’70s New York art scene. It seamlessly intertwines history with story (although the novel overall has little straightforward “plot”), including the radical backgrounds and made-up stories told by many of the minor characters. It is funny and vibrant, and the prose is stunning; Kushner brings scenes beautifully to life with her words. And, beneath all of that, there is the story of Reno, a young woman navigating her way in a misogynistic art world, falling in love and having her heart broken.
With its many layers, vivid settings, and radical characters, The Flamethrowers is an outstandingly crafted novel and definitely one worth reading.