We can call it in May: Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers,” which has been out for about a month, is going to make a lot of year-end short-lists.
Kushner, author of the well-regarded “Telex From Cuba,” weaves together two discrete yet potent moments in the late 1970s: the explosive New York art scene and the vibrant, revolutionary gyrations of Italy’s radical left.
Told with a crackling energy, the focus for the majority of the book is on Reno, so-called because she’s a Nevada native. Reno decamps for New York to become an artist, but we first meet her getting ready for a land speed trial at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Is she more artist or motorcycle enthusiast? Both, of course. Radical (aesthetic, personal, political) self-invention is at the heart of “The Flamethrowers.”
Reno wants to be a Land Artist (think Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jerry”). She wants to use the cycle in her work, to BE speed, in a way. She thinks about a chalk drawing another artist made while walking in the Mojave Desert: “What about going as fast as you possibly could? I’d thought. And not marking it in chalk. Drawing it in a fast and almost traceless way.”
Kushner tells her story mostly first-person via Reno, but adopts a wickedly canny voice, both personal and creeping up on a third-person knowingness. (“A funny thing about women and machines: the combination made men curious,” Reno thinks. “They seemed to think it had something to do with them.”)
Reno herself makes men curious; “The Flamethrowers” is also the story of a casual love triangle. The young artist garners the attention of two men, both veterans of the world Reno wants to join, to subvert and to enter and exit with ease.
One is Sandro Valera, a New York resident 14 years her senior, an alienated heir to the Moto Valera rubber/motorworks fortune in Italy.
Sandro makes hype-worthy aluminum boxes and shows at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. He is a man of action, saving someone from drowning and shooting a mugger all in the same night. (Indeed, Sandro’s energy and relationship to speed recalls, thematically, the Italian Futurists; his industrial background recalls the Futurists’ link to Italian Fascism during World War II. Nicely played, Kushner.)
Comfortable in any situation in the manner that only the truly wealthy can, Sandro is everything Reno wants from the New York art world.
The other is Sandro’s best friend, the photographer Ronnie Fontaine and a seriously unreliable raconteur. Both have talent and pull in this world, and both are eye-rollingly absurd. It is a testament to Kushner’s power and meticulous prose that you never quite want to toss either one off a bridge.
We also get a look at the Valera family past, in sections that seem third-person but could just as well be Reno recalling stories told to her by Sandro, stories about his father’s youth in Egypt, hideous combat in World War I, a primal scene involving a girl and a motorcycle and his establishment, classic white-colonist style, of a rubber empire in Brazil.
It’s a process that Kushner reveals in as much emotional detail as her funny yet empathetic renderings of the New York art world, where irony and pretension and sincerity blend until even the participants seem unsure which is which. Her characters are self-mythologizers by default, whether they, like Sandro, openly crave success or, like the waitress/former Warhol denizen Giddle, openly disdain it. Both are a means to an end: the self-actualization that comes from trying to life your life as art.
Kushner threads an undercurrent of once and future revolution in “Flamethrowers.” One of the Sandro crew hangers-on, Burdmoore Model, is a former member of the radical 1960s “street gang with a theory,” the Mother(expletive).
Chapter 11 takes an almost Andrew Vachss-ish turn into a history of the gang and their crimes. It’s another confident brush stroke building up Kushner’s canvas, another map for territories that exist only in the fuzzy area between myth and fact.
The author’s most impressive trick is to knit all of this together without feeling overly episodic or disruptive. The rubber harvest (“the man who puts your pails on the scale is against you like he was born to hate you in a natural way that won’t be corrected with fuller pails”) is as precisely rendered as the dinner scenes half a world and decades away (“Sandro said their gloom was almost mathematical, an endgame”). The opening curlicues of Reno’s land-speed record attempt (“Pink gasoline and synthetic red engine oil soaked into the salt like butcher shop residue”) fit nicely with elegant, stripped-down character beats (“The desire for love is universal but that has never meant it’s worthy of respect,” Reno thinks).
It is all of a piece, so Kushner can follow Sandro and Reno to Italy, to the conflict between Valera factory workers and the impossibly wealthy industrial family, to the doomed protests on the streets of Rome. Kushner can alternate between fever dream and the tear-gassed mob, between a Great War trench and the New York gallery without ever losing focus or steam. Her prose builds connections inherently, without forcing it. It’s quite a ride.