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By Rachel Kushner
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Rachel Kushner's vivid new novel The Flamethrowers is getting a huge push right now. It's gotten reviews in the New York Times and almost every other major paper, Ms. Kushner has been the subject of several profile pieces, and her most famous and respected peers seem to be lining up to offer their praise in the form of blurbs or publicity. As far as I can tell, every mention of the book so far has been glowing.
It's easy to see why. Ms. Kushner has a way with long, winding sentences that always seem to land on just the right punchline. She eloquently expresses both the toughness of her speed-obsessed narrator (unnamed in the book, but given the nickname "Reno" by the men around her), and the awe that Reno projects toward the world that is slowly opening up before her.
The Flamethrowers is essentially a period piece set in the art world of 1970's New York, which migrates briefly to the volatile locales of Rome and Milan, Italy. The book's plot takes us through two tumultuous postgraduate years in which 23-year-old Reno moves from Nevada to New York, spends several months yearning for entry into the art world and watching from the sidelines, and then miraculously enters it, only to watch it expand to the point of bursting and blow up in front of her eyes.
Reno's entry into the art world comes courtesy of Sandro Valera, an older artist and heir to an Italian tire and motorcycle empire, who becomes her lover and also acts as a sort of mentor and benefactor. Through the lens of Sandro and Reno's courtship, we visit the Nevada salt flats, where Reno sets the female land speed record. We visit two very different versions of Italy, the Lake Como of the ultra-privileged Valero's, and the seedy streets of wrong-side-of-the-tracks Rome, where an upstart labor movement seems bent solely on dismantling the Valero family's empire. We spend much of the book marooned in a frenetic New York City, where we are guests at what seems to be one long, wild, rooftop dinner party.
The first act, covering Reno's move to New York, her first meeting with Sandro, and the trip to the salt flats, is by far the strongest part of the book. The reason for this is simple--for those hundred and fifty odd pages it's clear what Reno wants. She wants to be a part of this mysterious and magical world. She's alone in a new city, and she's afraid, basically, that the dream isn't for her. When she wanders by chance into a blues club one night, meets some very drunk artists and accompanies them on a night of debauchery, we can feel her excitement. The feeling of the long-closed door finally swinging open is as magical for us as it is for her.
Alas, for me, the second two-thirds of the book were somewhat less exciting. Once Reno's place in artistic New York (and as the fastest woman in the world) is established, what she wants becomes less clear. I understood that she was motivated by the desire to make good art, but she doesn't seem to try very hard toward that end--once a few obstacles are thrown in her path her artistic pursuits go out the window. An argument could be made that the book is about the ugliness of ambition, as well as ambition's necessity, but when Reno makes this discovery her behavior doesn't change. Likewise, she isn't motivated by desire for a long-term relationship with Sandro, but seems to realize from the outset that what they have is fleeting. At the end of the book, I didn't have any idea what was next for Reno.
Don't get me wrong, this is a big and ambitious book, and it's about more that just Reno. The themes here are almost too many to mention, but there's enough material here for a nice term paper about any number of topics. What does it mean to be a cultural or artistic revolutionary, for example, or how Ms. Kushner uses radicalism in the 1970's as a foil for the Occupy movement, or the book's juxtaposition of economic and artistic ambition, or what statement Sandro's actions seem to make about the artistic life. But to fully realize any or all of these weighty themes, we need a character we can connect with to act as our guide and show us what we are supposed to make of all of this.
In truth, Reno seems a bit blank by the end of the book. It may be that Ms. Kushner intends for Reno to be viewed as a kind of Nick Carroway-esque host narrator--certainly Reno's lack of a proper name supports this theory--but if Reno is Nick, then who is our Gatsby? I don't think Sandro fits that role--he isn't an easy character to attach to, either. The most vivid character in the book is Ronnie Fontaine, who Reno sleeps with that first magical night when New York's doors finally open for her, but Ronnie takes a backseat to Reno and Sandro.
The real star of The Flamethrower's is 1970's New York. Ms. Kushner's descriptions are vivid, and the little vignettes involving secondary characters that establish the scene are often wild and entertaining. For the right kind of reader, I think this world-building would be enough, but I personally don't have the required emotional investment in 1970's New York to reap the book's full rewards. In this way, The Flamethrowers reminded me of Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast , where the real star is Paris in the 1920's. Ms. Kushner's New York will have the same pull for readers as Mr. Hemingway's Paris, which is obviously not a bad thing, but Ms. Kushner is such an exciting, even awe-inspiring writer that it made me greedy. I wanted the setting, the headiness, the entertainment, the philosophizing, and an emotional connection to the book's action through a character's eyes.
Out of 10: 9.5